Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter IV

Tlapallan or ——

“ARE we to rot here forever?”

Jerking to his feet, Kennedy glared as if it were some contumacious obstinacy of his companion which still kept them prisoners.

Six days had passed since Biornson’s visit, and brought no increase of knowledge nor change in their condition.

Boots, whose wounds had closed with a rapidity that did credit to either an unusual constitution or the medicaments originally used, sat up lazily and stretched his arms.

“A few hours yet till night. Dye ever notice how still it all is, Mr. Kennedy?”

“Still as the tomb. Silent as the desert. I’ve thought of nothing but that silence for days. I wondered how long it would be before a glimmer of its meaning reached you.”

“You’ve the unfortunate disposition to hold your thoughts till they sour on you. Never mind how thick my head is. Be kind to me, and say out the meaning, if you know it.”

“I will if you’ll shut up a minute yourself. The meaning is clear enough. It is simply that your dear friend Biornson is a particularly effective and artistic liar. That all his talk of Quetzalcoatl and Tlapallan is so much empty rubbish. I told you in the beginning that there were mines in these hills. I’m doubly sure of it now.

“Let us suppose, what is probably true, that Biornson is a man well and unfavorably known by the rurales, and in consequence a man who doesn’t dare apply to the government for a mining concession. Suppose, then, that he sees a certain opportunity in the current superstitions about these hills. What would be simpler than to strengthen them with the aid of a few white followers and a pack of hounds, and proceed therewith to make his fortune in safe secrecy?”

“I can think of a lot of simpler things,” said Boots reflectively, “though I’ll not say you’re wrong. But what’s that then?” He pointed to the polished white wall opposite the window. “The back of a mining shack, maybe? It must be a magnificent fine one to be built of white marble!”

“That,” Kennedy retorted, “is part of the same ruins that his men brought me down through blindfolded that first night. I’ll grant you that we are in a city of the Aztecs, or possibly of the Mayas. But it is a city as dead as the bygone civilizations of those races. Once out of this cell, and I promise you the sight of empty ruins, and no more.”

“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders,” conceded Boots rather sadly. “I misdoubt you’re right. And here I’d hoped to be seeing the strange wild city of a tale, with its priests and its multitudes bowing down to their poor false gods, and maybe a bloody sacrifice or so to make it the more interesting!”

For once the older man laughed, but it was a contemptuous merriment.,j

“From the curiosity of children and fools, good Lord deliver us! Biornson conjures up a frightful dream, and here you are ready to weep because it isn’t real! Do you, know the meaning of Tlapallan?”

“I’ve been trying to wring it out of you for a week,” was Boots’ bitter reply.

“In the old mythology of Anahuac, Tlapallan was a city of white wizards. It was to rule this fanciful Community that Quetzalcoatl deserted the Chollulans. In Yucatan they still expect him to return leading the magic race of white giants who are to restore all Mexico to the Aztecs. It was clever in Biornson to use that legend as a kind of scarecrow. His men are costumed to the part, and I dare say more than one Indian or greaser has been well frightened by them and the pack of hounds in their trail.

“What I appreciate, though, is his nerve in trying to put the illusion over on me. He didn’t want to do it. He was deathly afraid we’d run across some of his stage settings before he got rid of us. When we did, he decided to take the bull by the horns and try to victimize us through our imaginations, just as he’s done for years with the Indians.”

“But what’s he to gain by cooping us here, and — what of the queer language they all speak?”

“Aztec. You’ve heard it spoken in half a dozen Indian villages, but they give a queer twist to it here which I’ll admit deceived even me. They are some white hill tribe over whom Biornson has got a hold, but take my word, the whole affair is a kind of elaborate hoax.

“For the rest, he has us here, and he doesn’t exactly know what to do with us. I suppose some remnant of decency makes him hesitate at murder, and on the other hand, he’s afraid to let us go. If you had only allowed me to kill him when I had the chance we should be free men today. What are you grinning over now?”

“Nothing — or just the astonishing difference betwixt a murder and a killing. If we leave here tonight, will y’be content to do it without bloodshed?”

Kennedy brightened a trifle.

“You have a plan?”

“I’ve me muscle,” was the placid retort. “If that fine actorman, Mr. Biornson, believes me disabled entirely by a few small scratches, ’tis deceiving himself, he is. I do hope the jailer he sends to feed us is an upstanding lad, for ‘twould be shame to waste the returned strength of me on a man of contemptible proportions!”

As Boots had once pointed out, the fact that they were given no light after sundown was no great deprivation, since they had nothing to look at but each other, and the long, empty day was more than sufficient for that.

Tonight, however, it was a positive advantage. If they could not see their jailer, neither could he see them.

On these occasions the door was never opened wide. There was a chain outside, restricting the aperture to a matter of a dozen inches. Through this the invisible one passed his burden; fruit always, corn-cakes, boiled beans, or, more rarely, podrida of chopped chicken and peppers — a plain but plentiful diet. For drink there was water and a kind of thin, sweetish beer, contained in the porous clay ollas that kept it cool.

Kennedy had never made any effort to attack this provision-bearing visitor. For one thing there was the chain, and for another, except in the fury of being cornered, or with an overwhelming force to back him, he had not to any great degree the spirit that attacks.

With Boots on his feet again, the situation changed, and it was a pity for the jailer’s sake that he could not know this. Nine times had he approached that door, done his benevolent duty and departed unmolested, but on this tenth visit he met a different reception.

Playing second part willingly for once, Kennedy received his instructions, and around ten o’clock the unsuspecting one came slapping along, the alley on sandaled feet.

Setting down his basket he slid back the great bolt of solid copper, gave a warning rap, and pushed in the door to the length of the restraining links.

As was his custom, before taking the fresh provisions Kennedy thrust out the containers of the previous day, and this time he began with a water-jug, large and heavy, which he started to place in the waiting hands outside just as the groping fingers touched it, Kennedy let go. It was very neatly done. The jar, insecurely grasped, slipped, and instinctively the hands made a downward dive to catch it.

As the guard stooped, a long arm shot out, an elbow crooked about his lowered neck, and for one astonished moment he was helpless.

But Boots had got his wish. He had an adversary of no contemptible proportions, and that cramped grip through the doorway did not, could not hold. Even more quickly than Boots had expected the man broke away, but meantime Kennedy’s part was accomplished.

Their hope had been set on the fastening of that chain. If it locked, failure was certain. It did not. The end was a great hook, caught over a ring-bolt in the wall. Kennedy’s arm flashed out at the same moment with his ally’s, felt along the links, found the hook — the ring — his finger-tips barely reached it — and just as the enemy jerked free with an angry grunt, the chain rattled and fell.

When an Irishman charges he flings himself, muscle and mind and spirit, in one furious projectile.

The guard had scarcely straightened when his towering form crashed back, clean to the wall behind.

It was all in the dark, of course. Whether he thought himself attacked by a man or a raging demon cannot be known, but though the breath had been knocked from his body by Boots’ first rush, he rallied magnificently.

The Irishman found himself caught in a clinch that was like the grip of a grizzly bear, and though his ribs were not pasteboard they felt that awful pressure. His right forearm came up beneath the other’s chin, jolting it back, and he tore himself free by main force. When the other giant lunged after him, he was caught in a cross-buttock that sent him crashing down on the bricks.

But he was up with a resilience that Boots envied. For all his boast, the scarcely healed wounds he bore, coupled with nine days of inaction, had left the Irishman a good deal less than fit. And this jailer of theirs was a vast, dim, silent, forceful creature — a pale shadow that, chest to chest, overtopped him by a good two inches; a terribly solid shadow, of iron-hard muscles and a spirit as great as his own.

For almost the first time in his life, Boots tried to dodge an adversary’s rush. That grip on his ribs had warned him.

It was too dark for good foot-work. Tripping over the basket of fruit, he fell, and straightway an avalanche of human flesh descended upon him. Over and over they rolled, amid squelching oranges and bursting melons. Welded as in one figure, they rose and fell to rise again.

Boots’ ribs were cracking, and his breath came in hoarse gasps.

Then one braced foot of the man he fought slipped in the mess of smashed fruit, and the slide of it flung him sideways. He recovered instantly, but no longer erect.

Boots’ left arm was locked tight around the small of his back, the right was beneath his chin. Gasping, choking, his back curved in an ever-increasing arc, he yielded to that relentless pressure on his throat. Back and back, sweat poured down the Irishman’s face, and the blood from opened wounds ran over his body, but he had his foe now where he knew that nothing could save him.

Bent almost double at last, the huge form suddenly relaxed. It was that or a broken back. A second later, Boots’ knees were crushing the jailer’s chest, his hands squeezing the last gasp out of his windpipe.

“That’s the way, boy! Kill him — kill him — kill him!”

The whispered snarl at his shoulder brought the Irishman to his senses like a douche of cold water. There was something about it so base — so bestial — as if the very lowest depths of himself, the depths that a real man treads under and keeps there, had been suddenly externalized and had spoken with the voice of Kennedy.

He snatched his hands from the helpless throat. He rose, swift and silent. For one moment Kennedy was as near death as a man has a right to be, who whispers murder in a victor’s ear.

Then Boots remembered the poor thing Archer Kennedy was, and his great hands dropped.

“Get back in the cell,” he said quietly. “Two men have been fighting here, and the airs not safe for the likes of you to breathe Go!

And Kennedy went.

Again the grass pallet in the corner was filled by a giant, bandaged figure. This time, however, the mouth too was swathed, and the coarse, strong strips bound arms and legs in a manner to preclude any possibility of movement. A stifled groan rasped through the dark, but no one was there to hear.

Beside the dim white wall outside, two other forms walked cautiously along.

“It’s a scanty outfit of garments I got from that lad,” grumbled a deep voice. “I’d feel more decent to be strolling with a blanket to my back, as was my original intention.”

A grunt was the only comment elicited.

“Feathers,” continued Boots, “are fine in their place. For the decorating of hats, and for dusters, and for the wing of the bird they grew on, there’s nothing more appropriate than feathers. But to string a few of them together and hang them here and there on a person of good proportions, like myself — why, to cell it a complete costume is no less than exaggeration!

“Here’s an end to our going, unless — yes, a gate there is, and praise be, no lock on it, either. Now for your city of tombs and ruins. A pity it’s so dark we won’t see them,” Boots finished.

The alley, which had run straight between two high walls, ended in another as high. However, as Boots’ words indicated, there was a gateway. The door that filled it, though not fastened, was astonishingly heavy. He had to put the strength of his shoulders to the pull before it swung slowly inward.

“Good heavens!” breathed Kennedy.

Boots said nothing at all. He was entirely occupied with gazing.

In the very first moment, he knew that it was Kennedy’s dead city of tombs and ruins which had been the dream; Tlapallan, living and wonderful, the reality.

But — a city! Surely, here was the strangest city that ever mortal eyes beheld.

They had expected to emerge from that gate on or near the floor of a valley. Instead, a straight drop of some hundred feet was below them. They had come out on a railed balcony, from whose built-up stairs of stone slanted down the face of an immense facade of sheer, black cliff.

They had thought to find night close and dark about them. But their view for miles was clear, and the base of the cliff was lapped by the pale ripples of a lake of light.

Wide and far extended that strange white sea. Its waters, if waters they could be called, were set with scores of islands. About it, like the rounded, enormous shoulders of sleeping giants, loomed the somber hills.

The light of the lake was not glaring It was more as if, when night swallowed the sun, Tlapallan had held the day imprisoned in its depths. Every painted temple and palace of its islands, every gorgeous, many-oared barge and galley gliding across its surface, showed clear and distinct of hue as though the hour were high noon, instead of close to midnight.

Clear and strange. For one thing, there were no reflections. For another, the shadows were wrong. It was the under side of things that was brightest, the upper that melted into shade. The light was upside down. The sky, as it were, was beneath instead of above.

Over all brooded that great stillness which they had felt in their cell, and interpreted as the silence of desolation. And yet it was not quite the perfect stillness they had thought, for a low murmur came up through it, like the rustle of leaves in a distant forest, or the murmur of waves on a far-off shore.

On the many islands, amid gardens and beneath flowering trees, moved the forms of Tlapallan’s people. But no separate voice raised in speech or song floated up toward the watchers on the cliff.

The vessels of its traffic went to and fro, rowed by striped white oarsmen, who labored in an endless quiet. What lading did they bear, across an inverted sky, between islands as splendidly colored as sunset clouds?

A midnight traffic in dreams, one-would think, through the floating city of a vision.

Kennedy turned from the rail. Far up on the cliff there, they stood in a kind of spectral twilight. He saw his companion but dimly, a grotesque, gigantic figure, its huge limbs sketchily draped in a mantle made of strings of parrot feathers, that hid them none the better for having been through a wrestling match. Its height was increased by a helmet, shaped like the head of an enormous parrot and standing well out over the face. The golden beak of it curved down over the forehead, gaping, duel, lending its sinister shadow to the face behind.

And it stood so oddly motionless, that figure.

Kennedy’s glance traveled to the unearthly scene below and back again. He was swept by a horrible sense of unreality, of doubt.

Was this his homely, tiresomely light-humored mate of the camp and trail? Or was it the thing it seemed the specter of some old Toltec warrior, massive, terrible, with folded, gory arms, gazing out to the fabled home of its blood-stained gods?

The broad chest heaved in a sigh that sent a menacing quiver to the golden beak. From the shadow of the parrot-head there issued a solemn voice.

“Priests, did I say, and processions, and the poor commonplace of gilt idols? To the devil with them all! Here’s a sight worth owning two eyes for! Why, Shan McManus never saw the like o’ this, when he spent twelve months in Blake Hill with the Little People!”

“Boots!” exclaimed the other, with a rather curious emphasis.

“Well?”

“Oh, nothing. I wish you’d shed that helmet, though. It’s absurd.”

“I will not,” answered Boots firmly. “I do not know what it looks like, having seen it only in the dark, but I feel that it lends me an air of becoming dignity, . and moreover it is a part of me in disguise. Would you have us embark in one of those elegant boats we see, and myself with me bare red head shouting ‘Irish’ to every beholder?

“Ask what you like, but not for one string of these feathers I was slandering, and which I now perceive will enable me to move in the ranks of fashion. Dye see that boatload yonder? Not a gentleman passenger but is feathered like a bird o’ the jungle. You’ll notice, though, that the oarsmen are less particular. If you can’t get a feather suit for yourself, Mr. Kennedy, you can shed what you’ve got and row.”

“Are you actually insane enough to propose our hailing one of those vessels? Why, you great fool, they’d find you out in an instant. You can’t even speak the language:”

“I can shut me mouth,” was the placid answer. “I’ve all the right plumage of a citizen. Should they discover me true identity, I’ll grant you that a shindy may follow. But what of that? Come or stay here, Mr. Kennedy. ’Tis a matter of indifference to myself.”

A glance of mingled anger and despair was the sole reply, and when Boots set foot on the long stairs slanting lakeward, the older man made no motion to follow him.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30