Chapter XVI. The Map on the Gold
 

Naturally, when Tom pointed at the golden image, the eyes of all the Mexicans in the room, as well as those of the friends of the young inventor, followed. For a moment there was silence and then the aged Mexican, whom Eradicate had asked for corn meal, rapidly uttered something in Spanish.

"Yes! Yes!" chorused his companions, and they followed this up, by crying aloud when he had said something else: "No! No!" Then there was confused talking, seemingly directed at Tom, who, though he had lowered his hand, continued to stare at the golden image.

"What in the world are they saying?" asked Ned, who only knew a little Spanish.

"I can't get on to all of it," explained Tom above the confusion. "Evidently they think we've come to take the image away from them and they are objecting."

"Offer to buy it then," suggested Ned.

"That's what I'm going to do," answered Tom, and once more addressing the aged Mexican, who seemed to be at the head of the household, Tom offered to purchase the relic which meant so much to him, agreeing to pay a large sum.

This seemed to create further confusion, and one of the women of the household hastily took down the little statute and was carrying it into an inner room, when Miguel Delazes came up. He looked into the open doorway, glanced about the room which was illuminated by several rude oil lamps, saw the looks of wonder and surprise on the faces of Tom and his companions, noted the excitement among the Mexicans, and then he caught sight of the golden image which the woman held.

"Ah!" exclaimed Delazes, and there was a world of meaning in his tone. His small dark eyes glittered. They roved from the image to Tom, and back to the little golden figure again. "Ah!" muttered the contractor. "And so the senor has found that for what he was searching? It is gold after all, but such gold as never I have seen before. So, the senor hopes to get many relics like that for his museum? So, is it not? Ah, ha! But that is worth coming many miles to get!"

Tom realized that if he did net act quickly Delazes might have his secret, and once it was known that Tom was seeking the buried city of gold, the Mexicans could never be shaken off his trail. He decided on a bold step.

"Look here, Senor Delazes," said the young inventor. "I had no more idea that golden image was here than you did. I would like to buy it, in fact I offered to, but they don't seem to want to sell it. If you can purchase it for me I'll pay you a good price for it."

"And doubtless the senor would like many more," suggested Delazes, with an open sneer.

"Doubtless the senor would!" snapped Tom. "Look here, Delazes, I'm here on business, to get all the relics I can--this kind or any other that I may fancy. You can think we're after buried treasure if you want to--I'm not going to take the trouble to contradict you. I hired you and your men for a certain purpose. But if you don't want to stay and let me and my friends run things, the sooner you tell me so the better. But I don't want any more of your underhand remarks. Understand?"

For a moment Delazes stared at Tom with snapping eyes, as though he would like to have attacked him. Then, knowing that Tom and his friends were well armed, and doubtless thinking that strategy was better than open force he bowed, smiled in what he probably meant for a friendly fashion, and said:

"The senor is pleased to joke. Very well, I shall believe what I like. Meanwhile, does Senor Swift commission me to buy the image for him?"

Tom hesitated a moment. He feared he would be no match for the shrewd Mexican, and he wondered how much Delazes already knew. Then he decided on keeping up his end baldly, as that had seemed to have the best effect.

"You can have a try at buying the image after I have failed," he said. "I'll try my hand first."

"Very well," assented the contractor. The talk had been in English, and none of the Mexicans gave any signs of having understood it. Tom realized that he was playing a dangerous game, for naturally Delazes would privately tell the Mexicans to put so high a price on the statute as to prevent Tom from getting it and then the contractor would make his own terms.

But Tom decided that this was the only course, and he followed it.

"We'll stay here in the village for to-night," he went on. "Delazes, you and your men can make yourselves comfortable with any friends you may find here. We'll set up our tent as usual, after we get some corn meal for supper. I'll talk to them about the relic to-morrow. They seem to be afraid now."

"Very well," assented the contractor again, and then be said something in Spanish to the aged Mexican. What it was Tom could not catch, for Delazes spoke rapidly and seemed to use some colloquial, or slang phrases with which our hero was not familiar. The old Mexican assented by a nod, and then he brought out some corn meal which Eradicate took. The woman with the golden image had gone into an inner room.

"Bless my pocketbook!" exclaimed Mr. Damon, when he Tom, Ned and Eradicate were busy setting up their tent near a campfire just on the edge of the village. "This is most unexpected. What are you going to do, Tom?"

"I hardly know. I want to have a talk with whoever owns that image, to learn where they got it. One thing is sure, it proves that Mr. Illingway's information about the city of gold is correct."

"But it doesn't tell us where it is," said Ned.

"It must be somewhere around here," declared his chum. "Otherwise the image wouldn't be here."

"Bless my gaiters, that's so!" exclaimed the odd man.

"Not necessarily," insisted Ned. "Why one of the images is away over in Africa, and this one may have been brought hundreds of miles from the underground city."

"I don't believe so," declared Tom. "We're somewhere in the neighborhood of the city, according to Mr. Illingway's map, I'm sure. That would be true, image or no image. But when you take the little gold statue into consideration it makes me positive that I'm near the end of the trail. I've just got to have a talk with those people to learn where the statue came from."

"Look out for Delazes," warned Ned.

"I intend to. As soon as I can, I'm going to leave him and his men behind and set off in the balloon. But first I want to get an idea of where to head for. We must locate the plain on which stands the ruined temple."

"It's getting exciting," remarked Ned. "I wish--"

"Supper am serbed in de dinin' cah!" interrupted Eradicate with a laugh, as he imitated a Pullman porter.

"That's the best thing you could wish for," put in Tom gaily. "Come on, we'll have a good meal, a sleep, and then we'll be ready to play detectives again to-morrow."

They all slept soundly that night, though Tom had some idea of staying awake to see if Delazes paid any secret visits to the house where the golden image was kept. But he realized that the Mexican, if he wanted to, could easily find means to outwit him, so the young inventor decided to get all the rest he could and trust to chance to help him out.

His first visit after breakfast was to the house of the aged Mexican. The image was not in sight, though Tom and Ned and Mr. Damon looked eagerly around for it. There was a curious light in the eyes of the old man as Tom asked for the little statue of gold. Delazes was not in evidence. Tom had to conduct the conversation in Spanish, no particularly easy task for him, though he made out all right.

"Will you sell the image?" he asked.

"No sell," replied the Mexican quickly.

"Will you please let me look at it?"

The Mexican hesitated a moment, called a command to some one in the next room, and, a moment later the old woman shuffled in, bearing the wonderful golden image. Tom could not repress a little gasp of delight as he saw it at close range, for it was beautifully carved out of solid, yellow gold.

The woman set it on a rude table, and the young inventor, Ned and Mr. Damon drew near to look at the image more closely. It was the work of a master artist. The statue was about eight inches high, and showed a man, dressed in flowing robes, seated crosslegged on a sort of raised pedestal. On the head was a crown, many pointed and the face beneath it showed calm dignity like that of a superior being. In one extended hand was a round ball, with lines on it to show the shape of the earth, though only the two American continents appeared. In the other hand was what might be tables of stone, a book, or something to represent law-giving authority.

"How much?" asked Tom.

"No sell," was the monotonous answer.

"Five hundred dollars," offered our hero.

"No sell."

"One thousand dollars."

"No sell."

"Why is it so valuable to you?" Tom wanted to know.

"We have him for many years. Bad luck come if he go." Then the Mexican went on to explain that the image had been in his family for many generations, and that once, when it had been taken by an enemy, death and poverty followed until the statue was recovered. He said he would never part with it.

"Where did it come from?" asked Tom, and he cared more about this than he did about buying the image.

"Far, far off," said the Mexican. "No man know. I no know--my father he no know--his father's father no know. Too many years back--many years."

He motioned to the woman to take the statue away, and Tom and his friend realized that little more could be learned. The young inventor stretched out his hand with an involuntary motion, and the Mexican understood. He spoke to the woman and she handed the image to Tom. The Mexican had recognized his desire for a moment's closer inspection and had granted it.

"Jove! It's as heavy as lead!" exclaimed Tom. "And solid gold."

"Isn't it hollow up the middle?" asked Ned. "Look on the underside, Tom."

His chum did so. As he turned the image over to look at the base he had all he could do not to utter a cry of surprise. For there, rudely scratched on the plain surface of the gold, was what was unmistakably a map. And it was a map showing the location of the ruined temple--the temple and the country surrounding it--the ancient city of Poltec, and the map was plain enough so that Tom could recognize part of the route over which they had traveled.

But, better than all, was a tiny arrow, something like the compass mark on modern maps. And this arrow pointed straight at the ruins of the temple, and the direction indicated was due west from the village where our travelers now were. Tom Swift had found out what he wanted to know.

Without a word he handed back the image and then, trying not to let his elation show in his face, he motioned to Ned and Mr. Damon to follow him from the house.

"Bless my necktie!" exclaimed the odd man, when they were out of hearing distance. "What's up, Tom."

"I know the way to the ruined temple. We'll start at once," and he told them of the map on the image.

"Who do you suppose could have made it?" asked Ned.

"Probably whoever took the image from the city of gold. He wanted to find his way back again, or show some one, but evidently none of the recent owners of the image understand about the map, if they know it's there. The lines are quite faint, but it is perfectly plain."

"It's lucky I saw it. I don't have to try to buy the image now, nor seek to learn where it came from. Anyhow, if they told me they'd tell Delazes, and he'd be hot after us. As it is I doubt if he can learn now. Come, we'll get ready to hit the trail again."

And they did, to the no small wonder of the contractor and his men, who could not understand why Tom should start out without the image, or without having learned where it came from, for Delazes had questioned the old Mexican, and learned all that took place. But he did not look on the base of the statue.

Due west went the cavalcade, and then a new complication arose. Tom did not want to take the Mexicans any nearer to the plain of the temple than possible, and he did not know how many miles it was away. So he decided on taking a longer balloon voyage than at first contemplated.

"We'll camp to-night at the best place we can find," he said to Delazes, "and then I'm going on in the balloon. You and your men will stay in camp until we come back."

"Ha! And suppose the senors do not come back with the balloon?"

"Wait a reasonable time for us, and then you can do as you wish. I'll pay you to the end of the month and if you wait for us any longer I have given instructions for the bank in Tampico to pay you and your men what is right."

"Good! And the senors are going into the unknown?"

"Yes, we don't know where we'll wind up. This hunting for relics is uncertain business. Make yourselves comfortable in camp, and wait."

"Waiting is weary business, Senor Swift. If we could come with you--" began Delazes, with an eager look in his eyes.

"Out of the question," spoke Tom shortly. "There isn't room in the balloon."

"Very well, senor," and with a snapping glance from his black eyes the contractor walked away.