Our Little Aztec Cousin of Long Ago - C. V. Winlow

The Journey Begins by Night

It was two nights after Coyotl had been brought to the home of Amotl. Those two days had passed swiftly for the boy. He was up before dawn, washing the stone walks of the garden and the stone floors of the house, and the street in front of Amotl's house, for Montezuma was severe in his laws about a seemly order and care of the streets of the city.

He had his breakfast after morning offerings at sun-up, for Amotl was regular in his prayers and devoted to his gods.

Then Coyotl's duties included caring for the mats and the hangings in the house, doing errands in the town for Camana and Amotl, and any other odd job such as carrying water to certain precious plants in the garden.

Coyotl had found everything he did interesting and worth while. His back and arms were strong for such labor as was asked, for the boys in the temple schools had always been expected to do their bit about cleaning and caring for their quarters and for the halls and rooms of the temple.

"What is the business of my master?" he had asked Camana curiously one afternoon, while he was mending a broken place in the pavement of one of the walks with mud mixed with gravel.

Camana answered, "He is a merchant."

"Does that mean that he keeps a booth in the market place?"

"No indeed. Amotl takes a train of many armed men, loaded with fine goods, and travels far into the country, selling his wares in the homes of nobles. He is no market-place man."

"Ah, how I would like to go with him!"

Camana looked at the boy interestedly. He seemed to be a strong, lively lad, with an alert face, and bright eyes, and he was certainly not afraid of work. He seemed to tackle each new small task with delight.

"Who knows? Perhaps you may go with him," mused Camana. "He soon starts on the most important journey of his life, taking with him a hundred carriers, and he will go to the farthest border of the kingdom and will cross over into the land of the Tezcucans, who are allies of Montezuma. Maybe Amotl will have need of you."

"Oh, I pray that he may have. I will ask him if I may not go."

"I advise you not to. He is a kind master, but does not like requests or commands from his slaves."

Coyotl was downcast.

"I forgot I was a slave," he whispered.

But as the afternoon slipped by and the round sun descended lower across the blue sky, he took courage. It could do no harm to ask. He did not think he might be beaten. He might be left behind, but then—also he might remind Amotl of his presence. He had not even seen him, except fleetingly, since the first day he had slept in this rose and cream-colored house.

After the sun had set, and Amotl's emptied dinner dishes were carried to the back quarters to be washed, Coyotl took his courage in his hands and approached the master.

It was dark now. Stars shone above the garden. In the rooms of the house Camana had lighted the oil-dipped staffs of wood, and their burning gave out light.

Amotl was resting on a couch, as Coyotl came to the door and looked in.

"Who is it?" asked Amotl without moving and without lifting his hand from across his eyes.

"It is your young slave, Coyotl."

"What do you want?"

"I beg that you take me with you on your journey. I am strong. I can help. I can carry a big load. I can count and watch that nothing is stolen. I can. . . ." This poured out breathlessly, but Amotl raised his hand for silence. His heavy gold bracelets and nail protectors glinted in the light of the fire from the torch.

"I shall take you, and you are to help. But in Azcapozaloc I shall sell you. I have no need for a young slave."

Coyotl crept away silently then. He felt sore and empty inside. His disappointment was bitter. He went to sleep heavy with unhappiness, but in the morning, as he saw the first shadows cast by the house and garden in the thin sun-light following dawn, his spirits rose again. Anything might happen! Perhaps Amotl didn't mean it. Maybe he could make himself so useful that Amotl wouldn't want to sell him!

As he sat over his breakfast howl, the house and gardens paths being still wet and shiny from his ministrations, he heard the tramp of many feet outside. Camana went to open the side gate, which was made of cedar-wood, and slung on leather thongs between the high rose-colored walls. Outside there were many men, all wearing strong heavy-soled sandals, and slung across their backs, over their quilted cotton robes, were empty woven baskets. The sun glinted on the daggers in their girdles.

Aztec merchant


"Come," called Camana to Coyotl. "Make haste and take these men to Amotl. They are to form the train. Today the goods will be counted and packed, and tonight they take the road with Amotl."

And Coyotl's heart beat fast with excitement. Now the great storerooms in back were to be opened! He would see the treasures within! He would be with the others when they left Mexico City that night! He would walk outside the walls of the city!

Amotl was ready. From a chain around his waist, he took out a great key, and he gravely unlocked the door of the storeroom. He made a sign to Coyotl to follow him.

Cedar-wood chests stood against the walls, each labeled. Amotl stood a moment in his storeroom hesitating. Then he looked inquiring at Coyotl.

"You can count, can't you?" he half asked, half commanded."

"Yes, master!"

"And you can write?"

"Oh yes!"

Amotl turned to Camana.

"Bring paper-cloth and ink and brushes. We will let the boy keep the tallies."

The tallies were not hard to keep, for Coyotl knew his figures well. Dots represented each number up to five, and after that, up to ten, the dots combined to make the numbers—such as five dots and then two, for seven, and so on. The numbers ten and fifteen each had a separate name, and these numbers were combined with the dots up to twenty to form higher numbers. Twenty was represented by a flag. Larger sums could be indicated by the number of flags and dots written in combination. Twenty twenties was written as a plume. And four hundred plumes was written by drawing a sack or purse. The number writing was really a great deal like Roman numerals. But if only a third of four hundred was supposed to be written, the person figuring might simply draw a third of a plume, and so on.

So, all through the day, Amotl opened his boxes, and drew out treasures to tempt the taste of noble men and women. He tested each piece in his experienced fingers, and then set it aside to be made into a package and weighed by Camana. Coyotl wrote down the article, its weight, the number of the pack into which it was made, and the name of the man who was to bear it on the journey. At nightfall they were finished. The accounts had been made. Each man had his pack, besides the men whose packs consisted of food for the others on the journey.

Amotl was weary, but he did not leave the storeroom until he had looked over the last of Coyotl's accounts very carefully.

"Very well done," he said at last. "You were quick, too." He gave the boy a pat on the shoulder, and Coyotl glowed with pride.

It was night when all was ready, and the men stood, two by two, outside the house, waiting for the signal to start.

"Aren't you afraid some of them might run away?" asked Coyotl of Amotl, and before he knew it, Amotl answered as frankly as if the lad were not his slave, "No. Each man has told his name to a magistrate, and no one will be paid until the journey is over."

The signal was given. Amotl took his seat in a litter, and two men, whose duty it was only to carry the merchant himself, shouldered it. The march began.

All Mexico City was lighted by the fires from torches in gardens and along the streets, and by the sacred fires which blazed on the top of the great pyramid altars. The train took its way straight along through the heart of the city, out the great wide avenue where Montezuma rode in pomp to his wars.

They came to a bridge, manned by soldiers, and Amotl had to present his special permission from Montezuma to cross it. But then at last the bridge was crossed, and they were outside the city walls, walking along a raised road that went straight as an arrow through swampy land.

Coyotl heard the creak, creak of the men's sandals and the soft sound of dust slapped up by their feet. From the swamp came sounds of frogs and insects. The sky was black above, and the light of the torches carried by every tenth man flashed fitfully along the dark road. A wind was rising, and their cotton cloaks blew out from their bodies.

After two hour's tramp the road came down into dry plain, and the dark bulk of little rising hills could be seen ahead. A little prairie fox, the coyote, in deference to the sagacity of which Coyotl's parents had named him, howled.

In another hour the party came to the estate of a friend of Amotl's, whose huge house, with storerooms and gardens and courts to spare, was at their disposal. This was a country home, not so fine as Amotl's, but comfortable. Beds had been made for all the men, and a hot supper awaited them. Amotl ate with his friends inside the house. Coyotl feasted with the men.

"This is splendid!" he said. "I'm not tired at all!"

"Wait until tomorrow," laughed one of them. "You'll feel your muscles! And we'll march farther, too."

But Coyotl went to sleep well content.

"Azcapozalco is still a long way off," he thought.