The Treasure of Atlantis, by J. Allan Dunn, , at sacred-texts.com
Vivid flashes of forked lightning, following hot puffs of wind, illuminated the aisles of the Amazonian forest, inky black between the intervals. The long line of carriers, tired of struggling over and under the tough festoons of tree roots and ground vines and the trailing lianas that disputed every inch of the trail, came to a sudden halt. The two leaders, stumbling persistently behind the bearers, confirmed the move, and the Morse-Laidlaw expedition tried to find secure shelter from the coming storm that had driven night before it in such untimely fashion.
There was little cover from the threatened hurricane that could be considered satisfactory. The cargadores threw their burdens beneath the heaviest undergrowth they could find, and, with their employers, leaned against the tree trunks. Morse and Laidlaw ensconced themselves in a fold of a great massaranduba (cow tree) as the first heavy drops fell.
"I'm not built for this trail, Morse," said Laidlaw, though his cheery voice evinced no complaint. "I've tripped up in these infernal jungle traps a dozen times. My nose is bleeding, and I've cracked both shins falling on my rifle."
"And I've been swung off my feet with a noose about my neck about as often," replied Morse. "We're due here till morning, anyway. By tomorrow night I hope to reach Apara. Here it comes!"
They shrank against the mighty bole as the gale swept through the forest, the roar of the wind intensified by the crackling of trees that were literally up-rotted and tossed by the tempest as if they had been so many wisps of straw. Two sturdy trunks crashed down close to their feet, and only the giant spread of mighty bough above them saved them from destruction. In the intermittent pauses of the storm the shrieks of monkeys and the screeching of parrots and herons joined the wailing of the bearers and machete men in an appalling din. Birds flapped heavily to the branches overhead; animals shuffled in among them; and once a wild cry of dismay went up as a great snake wound its scaly length among the Indians, too disturbed for attack.
The gale lasted two hours. It was the last effort of the rainy season, and had not been unexpected by Morse, who had deliberately chosen the time of the trip to take advantage of the high water in the rivers. They had come by steamship to Para, at the mouth of the Amazon, traversed eight hundred and seventy miles of the Flowing Road to the mouth of the Madeira, and ascended that tributary nearly seven hundred miles in a launch to the San Antonio Falls, above which the river raged in continuous rapids for three hundred miles, impossible for upriver travel. At San Antonio, they engaged their porters and machete men and struck eastward across the great plateau broken up into subsidiary chapadaos, crossing the Tapajos River at Taguaraizino, and its tributary, the Manoel, at the border angle of Para and Matto Grosse States, reaching the old, half-grown trail of Murdock, and arriving with a few days’ march of Apara village, at a stream marked on the orchid hunter's map as Caxoeira, in the beginning of May, with six months of good weather in prospect.
It had been a hard trek, and the caravan showed signs of the trying-out process. Morse had marveled at Laidlaw's adaptation to the trying conditions. Once eggs disappeared inexorably from the menu, he made neither murmur nor suggestion as to meals, accepting chameleon or monkey with manioc for vegetable and banana for dessert with equanimity. The drawback of his short legs was eliminated by his endurance.
Once, for sport, he had drawn himself up into the lianas and swung along above ground for a hundred yards as easily as a gorilla, scaring the prehensile-tailed monkeys that chattered above him and striking awe into the hearts of the Indians. The quest well started, nothing seemed to disturb a certain humorous equanimity that characterized him and made him an ideal trail companion. Torrential rains soaked them; they steamed in their own perspiration; gnats and gaudy-flied, heavy-shelled beetles, all laden with poison sacs and natural hypodermic syringes, tormented them, but they proved immune to the fevers, and their formidable numbers and equipment secured them from hostile attacks.
Morse was in top condition. By dint of strict discipline and a general knowledge of conditions, he kept his
train in similar shape, and they made unprecedented time. Across the grassy summits of the chapadaos, the day's march was more often over than under twenty miles, and a general spirit of confidence in their own ability permeated the party. Morse had said nothing to the bearers concerning the real object of the expedition. He had consulted with Laidlaw, and they had decided to keep silent.
"We may not be welcome at Dor," Morse suggested, "and, according to Murdock, the Indians seem inclined to be superstitious in the matter. We don't want to lose them before we reach Apara."
In spare hours since they had left New York, Morse applied himself, under the tutelage of Laidlaw, to acquiring facility in ancient Greek and learning to decipher the symbols of Cretan pictorial and linear script.
"There will be variations in the language, undoubtedly," said Laidlaw, "but the roots may be the same, and present practice will prove a fine working basis." So Morse resurrected the memories of his school and college classics and pounded away until he was able to converse freely with Laidlaw. Except where the Greek held no equivalents for the names of modern articles, they practically adopted it in place of English.
"Dialects spring up and mother languages alter with change of location and climate, much as we will undoubtedly find the old Cretan ceremonials and customs, religious and social, dominated by local conditions," warned Laidlaw. "If the snow-capped cone mentioned by Murdock is a volcano, it will undoubtedly have had its influence on their worship. The old Minotaur legend will likely have become a myth unless they have cattle, which I doubt. The volcanic fires will have an important part in their ritual, I imagine. Though it is, of course, all theory on my part."
With education and speculation, the time passed quickly, and it seemed only a short time since Laidlaw had first burst into Morse's bedroom. A genuine friendship, founded on mutual peril and respect for each other's bearing and sturdy manhood, sprang up between the two men. Morse was amazed at the resources of Laidlaw's learning, and Laidlaw treated the other as a son of whom he was justly proud, relegating to him the
leadership by right of experience and capability.
The morning after the storm, Morse broke camp at daybreak. The hurricane had blazed a broad trail of uprooted trees, torn undergrowth, and lianas through the forest and strewn it with boughs and branches. Dead a birds lay here and there, and one great limb had smashed to a pulp a great anaconda fully thirty feet in length and as thick around as Morse's thigh.
According to the map, they had crossed the last watercourse and had now only to climb out of the valley to the highlands where Tagua ruled the village of Apara. During the morning they made good progress, and at sunset they arrived at the village and sent in word to its ruler with gifts of bright-colored prints.
There was no surprise at their appearance; the jungle wireless had announced them as it had elsewhere along the route. The bearers fraternized with the half-naked pisanos of the village, and two headmen escorted Morse and Laidlaw to a large bamboo hut which they speedily made comfortable with their camp equipment.
Morse asked for Tagua by name. "Tell him," he said, "that we are friends of Murdock to whom he made the present of the cup of gold."
The response from the chief took initial form in return presents of fat capybaras, an agouti, and an armadillo, together with wild figs and bananas. In half an hour the chief arrived, apologizing for his delay. He had been in a mud bath for his rheumatism, and had waited to cleanse himself. He limped badly, and was evidently in pain, though he beamed with evident friendliness.
"You come from Senhor Mirradoche?" he asked in the flowing Indian dialect. "Does he send greetings?"
"Greetings from beyond the trail, Tagua. The senhor is dead."
"Eyah! It is bad news. He was a good man. I linger like an old tree, but he is taken."
He lapsed into silence which the Americans did not interrupt. At length he asked: "What may I do for you?"
Morse repeated the story told by the orchid hunter.
"We would find the city and enter it," he concluded.
Tagua sank back in mingled incredulity and horror. "It is impossible!" he exclaimed. "The way is closed, and they permit no strangers within the city
save as bondmen. You cannot go alone. And none of the pisanos would dare go with you. It is a land of ghosts who dwell sometimes on the land and sometimes in the sky. Have I not seen it? Did not Mirradoche see the Sky City and the people walking?"
"Nevertheless we will go," declared Morse, "even if we go alone. Where is the way?"
"You are strong men and brave," said the chief thoughtfully, "and friends of my friend. Therefore I warn you. But you men of other jungles are all mad and most stubborn. Yet, maybe you are magicians. Have I not heard of him who swings in the trees and talks to the apes like a brother?"
It was somewhat of an exaggeration; but Laidlaw, who had long ago mastered the key language of the Amazonian dialects, laughed.
"But that will not help you scale the walls," Tagua went on. "The way leads by the stairs that Mirradoche told you of, but they are broken and the ghosts have sealed the cliff. Give it up, senhors. Maybe tomorrow you may see the Sky City from the campo. I myself will lead you opposite the stairway. Then return while still your bodies hold your soul."
They quizzed him, but he could add nothing to the dim legend that once the Indians had been forced to work in the Land of the Ghost People and had been driven out at the end of their task, his ancestor bringing with him the golden vase he had taken.
Morse opened a pack and produced it, setting it on the camp table. A cover for the vase had been made at his direction, carefully designed to conform with the original. This was soldered tightly to the bowl.
"This cup," he said, "was given me by our friend. In it are his ashes. I shall give them burial within the city of Dor. I swear it!" he added, setting one hand upon the urn.
Tagua looked at him with astonished admiration.
"If you say so, then I believe you will do it."
Outside the hut, the night was filled with weird noises when they emerged. Tagua had declared a feast in his visitor's honor. Fires blazed at the ends of the mud-caked street, and villagers dressed in gaudy prints, bedecked with strings of alligator teeth, feathers, and
lustrous bird skins paraded up and down behind musicians beating loudly on drums and blowing piercing notes through reed flutes in rude rhythm. With them mingled the bearers and machete men. Native liquors were in evidence, and the crowd sang and danced at will.
At the appearance of Tagua and his guests the crowd entered a big hut decorated with fresh palm trees and lit by tallow dips along the walls. The chief conducted Morse and Laidlaw to a platform at one end to watch the dancing, which took place on the uneven mud floor with much stamping of feet to the drums and flutes. It was evident that before long the native ferments would be in full possession.
Morse took advantage of the first pause brought about by temporary exhaustion and stated the object of the expedition. With the first mention of the Sky City a silence fell upon the mob. He concluded with a call for volunteers, promising a rifle to each man and other rewards that would make them comparatively rich for life.
The men shuffled their feet and whispered among themselves, and Tagua spoke.
"I am old and useless," he said. "Also I am afraid of the Ghost People. Yet would I go with these two if only that shame should not be set upon my village and Apara be called the abode of cowards. Maya"—he singled out a tall warrior hung with rows of alligator teeth—"what say you?" The men stepped forward. His chest bore the scars of close encounter with some sharp-clawed jungle denizen; he carried his head high, and was evidently regarded as a sub-chief.
"If I send an arrow against a jaguar or a man," he said, "I know when I have hit. If I miss, it is my fault. But how can one fight against ghosts when the arrow pierces a shadow and is lost in a cloud? Yet am I no coward. What one dares I dare! Xolo! Will you follow these strangers with me?"
Xolo, long and lean, streaks of gray in his black hair, not an ounce of spare flesh on his body, naked save for a breechclout, corded with stringy muscles, came to the side of Maya.
"I will go," he said simply.
But that was the end of the recruiting. The men who
had accompanied the expedition were paid, and neither Morse's offer of high payment nor Tagua's persuasive powers could coax another warrior into service. Maya and Xolo were the best hunters of the district, Tagua said, and both had performed notable deeds in war against hostile tribes. Better still, while both were adepts with spear and bow and blow gun, Tagua had intrusted them from time to time with the use of the rifle given him by Murdock, and they were accustomed to its use and fairly good shots.
It was not Morse's idea to make an entry into the mystic city with any force that might be construed as an attempt at invasion, but he had hoped to secure enough men to bear the bulk of his equipment. With only Maya and Xolo available, he and Laidlaw were forced to spend the morning reducing their outfit to only the most necessary articles. The two Indians were intrusted with rifles; Morse and Laidlaw, besides these, armed themselves with automatic pistols. A few presents, a compass, powerful flashlights, some few canned provisions, with ammunition, made up the bulk of what they selected to take with them.
The rest Morse gave into Tagua's charge.
"If we do not return for these before the rainy season, they are yours," he said, after opening one bale that contained cotton goods of startling color and design, which he gave outright to the chief.
They set out in mid-afternoon for the spot where Murdock had camped across the canyon from the stone steps. Tagua accompanied them. Close to sunset they came out of a clump of carrasco upon the edge of the precipice. The wall dropped almost sheer five hundred feet to the torrent, which, swollen by the recent rain, swirled and seethed from bank to bank. The opposing cliff was far higher than the one they stood upon, a perpendicular scarp of rock on the rim lifting up to almost a thousand feet.
The setting sun was almost level with the flat summit of the plateau behind them and painted the farther cliff with a broad band of rose. Beneath their feet the canyon was in shadow, in which the foaming rapids showed like a cavalry charge of gray horses.
Morse imagined that he could dimly make out the
stone steps leading halfway up the cliff. Laidlaw was gazing at the summit of the opposing wall, sharp against the eastern sky of pale turquoise-matrix green, flecked here and there with little rosy clouds, the heralds of the gorgeous afterglow to follow.
Suddenly he drew in his breath sharply, and Morse looked up. Tagua, Maya, and Xolo were on their hands and knees, their heads resting on the ground.
In the sky, ethereal, slightly tremulous, but distinct, was the vision of a city built upon the shores of a lake that held the reflections of its stone buildings and of colonnaded temples that seemed to be hewn out of the solid rock. On the lake, ships were being rowed shoreward with banks of oars, some propelled by sails of striped material, a multitude of people were passing along a paved highway by the edge of the water. Luxuriant verdure set off the buildings, and, reared from the back cliff, there rose a snow-capped dome with a plume of smoke lazily curling from its peak.
As the sun dropped behind the western edge of the plateau, the colors of the mirage blended with the afterglow, the waters of the lake seemed to slowly rise and inundate the city, the plume of smoke became a floating cloud, and the vision vanished.
Morse and Laidlaw turned in common impulse and clasped hands. There was no need for words. It was the city of Dor, cloud-painted indeed, but a sky canvas copied from an original that lay somewhere beyond the high precipice that now bent a grim frown upon them, the rosy band vanished with the descending sun.