Saturday, December 03, 2011
I climbed to me feet, wavered as a curtain of black descended and then stood erect. I saw Eric lying on the grass, a hand to his head. His face was pale, as if he was about to be sick. He groaned and sat up.
“What’s going on?” he moaned.
I touched a hip but the .45 was gone.
There was a burst of cheering as Eric got up. He stood there for a moment and then asked again, the anger creeping into his voice, “What in the hell is going on?”
A sword, thrown by someone to our right stuck in the ground near me feet. A second one joined the first. Neither of us moved, but the crowd went wild.
In Spanish, the high priest, the man who had stood on the ramp and killed the children and who had ordered the attack on us, said, “This is trial by ordeal. Two of our best warriors will be pitted against you. If you win the battle, you will live for another day. If you lose, you will die and your bones will rot in the forest. There is no appeal.”
I reached out and pulled the sword from the ground. I hefted it, swung it right and left and then asked, “Where is my personal weapon?”
“Your thunderstick has been taken as a gift for the emperor. It is now his. You will use the weapon given to you.”
“And if we don’t fight?” asked Eric.
“Then you will die.” He said simply, “And they will die most horribly. They die as infidels and will be deprived of their afterlife.”
I turned and saw that both Christine and Huana were bound to poles. Ropes were drawn tightly around their bodies, holding them upright. Around their feet were stacks of kindling and piles of wood.
“When the battle begins,” said the high priest, “the fire begins. Win quickly and you may save your woman. Lose and they die in the fire. Fight slowly and they die slowly. It is all up to you to finish.”
I glanced at Eric. He didn’t look too good. His hair hung in his face and he was sweating heavily. I didn’t think it was the tropical heat that was bothering him. He was sick with some kind of fever. That was an additional handicap.
To the high priest, I said, “If I dispatch my adversary, am I allowed to help my friend?”
“You my do as you choose, remembering that the women are in mortal peril.”
“Then let’s begin,” I said with more confidence than I felt.
The high priest raised his hands and clapped them once, twice, three times. To the sound of blaring trumpets, a caravan entered through the gate. First, there were naked women scattering flower pedals, their hair adorned with brightly colored feathers. They were followed by naked men, carrying a wheelless carriage on long poles set up on their shoulders. Inside each was a human figure and as the procession approached, I saw mummified bodies inside. I learned later that these were the mortal remains of past rulers, brought out for ceremonies. When the rulers were set down where they could watch the activities, four old women, dressed in pure white danced out and began waving palm leaves as if trying to cool the dead. I suppose it was to keep the flies away.
With the rulers ready and in position to watch, the living emperor descended the marble steps and entered the royal box. He sat on a carved, wooden throne and held a hand high. When he dropped it, four men charged out. Two of them held flaming torches which they tossed into the kindling and wood piled around Christine and Huana. As the flames started to build, the two other men, stripped to the waist attacked Eric and me. I held my sword high, point up, watching the dancing feet of my enemy. He was a big man, well muscled. There was almost no hair on his body. That on his head gleamed in the sun. It was long, black, and tied back in a ponytail. He grinned at me with white, nearly perfect teeth.
He attached immediately, moving in and chopping at my head. He swung his sword with strength, trying to kill me quickly. I parried the blow and then swung my sword. He leaped left and countered. Our blades hit with a ringing of metal against medal. He twisted his hand, trying to flip my weapon from me, but I was prepared for that. I snapped my hand around and drew first blood as I slashed his side. The wound, though superficial, draw a shout from the crowd.
Then, behind me, I became aware of the crackling of the fires. I knew that the wood was beginning to burn and the flames would be spreading quickly. There was no sound from either Christine or from Huana.
My adversary attacked again, swinging his sword like he was clearing vines from a jungle trail. He kicked out with a foot and danced closer. I retreated, parrying. Sweat popped out on him, making his body glisten, but he didn’t seem to be tiring at all. He was as strong as when we began.
I stumbled then and a roar rose from the crowd. My man leaped at me, swinging his sword like he had gotten a fat one on the outside of the plate. I ducked under it and rolled. He chopped down, his sword cleaving the soft earth. I jabbed and caught him on the leg. Blood flowed freely and the crowd roared its pleasure.
Behind me I heard the first cry of fright. The flames had to be getting close to the women but I couldn’t afford to look. As my enemy fell back, I got to me feet and advanced on him. He hobbled, favoring his wounded leg, but I was afraid that he was making it seem worse than it really was.
To the left, I could hear Eric fighting with his man. Their blades rang with blows, each of them grunting with the effort.
Now I attacked, swinging, thrusting and circling. I danced around my man so that I could look beyond him, at the fires. Pillars of white smoke obscured the women. They were dark shapes, hidden behind the flames, and inside the smoke. One of them was whimpering but I didn’t know which.
By checking them, I lost the advantage. The man came at me, roaring his fury, trying to disorient me. I ducked under a blow, fell, and rolled. He thought that he had me then. He leaped at me and swung. Instead of rolling away as I had in the past, I rolled toward him. Caught by surprise, he hesitated. That gave me the opening I needed. I jammed my sword into his side. There was a shriek of surprise and pain, a fountain of blood and then the odor of death. The man fell, wrenching the sword from my hand.
I scrambled to my hands and knees as the man dropped. I grabbed my sword, tugging it free. Eric was holding his own and had blooded his enemy once or twice. I spun and raced toward the fires. At first the flames were to high and hot for me. I ran around the end and saw an opening. I leaped over a pile of wood, stumbled but didn’t fall. Huana was sagging against her bonds, as if she had passed out. I slashed at the rope holding her. I cut several of them but had to be careful. Her hands were tied behind her and the pole. I needed to get closer.
The smoke poured up as the fire roared. It stung my eyes and filled my lungs. I blinked rapidly, the tears streaming down my face. I sawed at the ropes around Huana’s wrists.
Christine saw me then and screamed at me, “Hurry! Please hurry!”
The ropes parted and Huana fell to her knees. I helped her to her feet and pushed her away from the post and the fire. As she tripped and began to crawl out of the smoke, I turned to Christine. I could feel the heat of the flames beginning to bake me. My eyebrows began to curl and sizzle in the heat. I could barely see with the stinging smoke burning my eyes. I coughed. It felt as if my lungs had caught fire.
Christine was beginning to babble, her voice rising in panic. I cut the ropes that held her legs to the pole. She jerked, vainly trying to pull herself free. Her bonds cut into her body, drawing blood on her arms and shoulders.
I used my sword and cut through the majority of the rope. I coughed again as the smoke filled my lungs, making me dizzy. I slipped to my knees and lost sight of the pole.
Christine was shouting now. Screaming, almost incoherently, as the heat grew and the smoke thickened.
I reached up and touched the pole. I slid my hand down it until I came to hers, bound behind her. I couldn’t see now. By touch, I could the ropes and felt the wetness of blood. I knew that I had injured her but she didn’t cry out. Without a word, she leaped from the pole, staggered through the smoke and flame and then ran for safety.
Now it was time for me to get out. On my hands and knees, I crawled over the rough surface of the logs, cutting myself badly in the process. I kept going until I could taste the clean, fresh air. Shakily, I got to my feet. I dropped the sword and scrubbed at my eyes, trying to find Eric. I hoped he had been able to dispatch his man because I was in no condition to fight anyone else. At least not right then.
As I stood there, fighting for air, trying to see, I heard a chant from the crowd. A rhythmic chant that rocked the stadium and shook the ground. I looked toward them and saw they were on their feet, shouting and clapping and stomping. On the grass, in front of the dead rulers, were the bodies of the two men sent to fight us. Eric was standing over one, looking down at the dead man, as if he didn’t believe that he had won.
I stooped to pick up my sword and tossed the weapon at the feet of the high priest. He glanced at the bloody blade and then at the dirty bodies of the women standing behind me, coughing because of the smoke. Sweat was dripping from them and there were smears of dirt and ash on them. He turned up his nose, as if he found their very presence distasteful.
“You have won,” he said.
“Damn right,” I said. “We are now free.”
He grinned evilly. “You are not free. Tomorrow you fight again. Tomorrow will be the same as today. And each day you will fight until you are killed and your bodies thrown into the flames to be destroyed along with those of the women.”
“Or until there are no more warriors to face us,” I said with a confidence that I didn’t feel.
“We are many thousand and you are but two. Without your thunder weapons, you will surely fall.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said.
“Tomorrow will show us how strong and brave you are. Tomorrow will be the true test.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. We had just defeated two of the strongest men I had ever faced. We had done it with the weapons they provided and unless they took away those weapons, I believed that we could hold out indefinitely. I hoped after a couple of days, they would give up.
But that was not to be. The high priest turned and prayed loudly, the crowd following him. When he finished, he spun and said, “Tomorrow you will each fight two warriors and if you win, the next day it will be three each. Laugh now, infidel.”
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
I woke with a start, sure that something was wrong. I kept my eyes closed as I listened to the sounds around me. Nothing had changed from the night before, or the hours before. I opened one eye and saw Eric sitting erect on his sleeping bag. He was staring straight ahead, unmoving. I could see rivulets of sweat dripping down the side of his face and I wondered what had happened. My thoughts turned to half remembered stories of rattlesnakes and cobras crawling into sleeping bags so that neither occupant could stir.
I rolled to the right and saw four men standing there. Each held a long spear, the point tipped with hammered gold. The ornate carving on the long, black shaft suggested the weapons were more ornamental than dangerous, but I was sure that one could inflict a fatal wound if the bearer decided to try.
The men were dressed as if for war. They each sported a chest protector of padded armor. They were wrapped in capes of bright colors and held shields that were decorated with many symbols. Each wore a garment that reminded me if a knee length kilt and they wore knee high boots of a material that looked like snake skin. Two of them wore helmets that might be gold and the other two wore plain headbands.
As I sat up, one of them pointed his spear at me. He was a short, stocky man with long black hair, an oval face and oval eyes. His skin was a deep tanned and his nose was board. I shifted slowly and he said, "Manos arriba."
I shot a glance at Eric who shrugged.
"Manos arriba," the man repeated, his voice carrying a note of irritation now.
Slowly, I raised my hands as he had commanded. I couldn’t believe that he had spoken to me in Spanish. As I waited, one of the others began a long speech in a language that I couldn’t begin to understand.
While two of the men watched us, the other two moved so that they could search our packs. They pulled out the equipment, tossing away the things they didn’t recognize and stuffing the rest into sacks. They took the knives and the machetes from us but ignored both our rifles and pistols.
Later I would wonder why they ignored the firearms. They must have seen them before. Others had explored the Inner Earth and they had taken firearms with them. But these men didn’t seem to understand what they were or how important they would be to their civilization.
The two then went to our boat, searched through it, destroying some of our supplies, throwing some into the river, and stealing the rest including the steel headed axes, extra machetes and extra knives. When they finished, they chopped holes in the boat and pushed it into the river to sink.
As the two men approached, the one who spoke Spanish ordered us to our feet. I noticed that Eric was carefully measuring the distances among us, figuring the angles and wondering the same thing that crossed my mind. Could we draw and fire before these men could respond? Would the attack throw them off balance long enough for us to kill them?
Eric’s hand shifted closer to his holster. I noticed that his was unsnapped. Mine was not.
Just as it seemed that he had made up his mind, a dozen men, armed with long blowguns and crossbows appeared at the edge of the jungle. Their clothing, a uniform of some kind, matched that worn by the men who had captured us.
Eric grinned and said, "Wouldn’t have worked after all. Now too many of them."
I knew exactly what he meant.
The man closest to us snapped, "Silencio."
Prodded by the spears, we picked up what we could of our gear, salvaging some of the jerky and a couple of boxes of ammo for the rifles and the pistols. I was surprised they left those with us, after taking our knives, but it was possible they just didn’t recognize them as deadly weapons. They had left our first aid kits and canteens attached to the belts.
Again we crossed the meadow, but this time entered the jungle at the first real break in the foliage, the one that we had passed the day before. Two of the men with crossbows went in first, followed by two with blowguns and then our four guards surrounding us.
Within minutes, the jungle became so dense that it was like dusk. The trees and bushes that bordered the trail were lost in the gloom. They were shadowy shapes barely visible.
And the humidity seemed to climb about one hundred percent. It hung heavy in the air, almost visible. Around some of the trees, near the ground were wisps of white that looked as if the roots were on fire, but was a light fog.
Our captors didn’t waste time. They made good progress, prodding us with their spears when we slowed even slightly. None of them spoke and I was reminded of our patrols in the Army. Noise discipline once we were into the bush. These men hadn’t spoken to one another since we entered the jungle.
Around us, I could still hear the sounds of the animals and the buzz of insects. A huge, muddy looking moth dived out of the trees, flashed by me face and then disappeared again. When I flinched, ducking to the right, the men laughed and then we were again wrapped in silence.
After several hours of hot marching, we stopped and the men ate a quiet, quick meal. Since I could not see the sun, and even if I could, it wouldn’t have given me a clue about the time of day, I assumed it was lunch. Eric and I drank from our canteens and when our captors offered us nothing, we ate some of the jerky we had salvaged.
Before we had a chance to rest, we were up and moving again. Each attempt to ask questions was met with a quiet, quick rebuff. It might be a guard telling us to be silent or it might be a blow with the shaft of a spear. We gave up quickly, assuming that we would find out all we wanted to know before long.
Early on, I began hearing a babbling to the right. Water splashing over rocks. It seemed to come closer and I realized that we were paralleling a stream. It was a clue that might be valuable later.
Sometime in the afternoon, or what I assumed was the afternoon, I became aware of a roar, as if water was falling from great height. The jungle seemed to be lighter as if the sun was breaking through a think cloud bank. Then, suddenly, we were out of the jungle, standing on a high cliff, looking into an open valley several hundred feet below us. To the right, the water cascaded over the edge, dropping straight into a huge pool far below us. The mist rose from it creating a multicolored rainbow to the side of the waterfall.
We turned to the left where there was a rocky path that lead down. As we approached it, I saw the village spread out below us. Hundreds of thatched roofs along narrow streets that lead to a central plaza. It wasn’t exactly a square because only two of the sides were parallel.
The path changed to a stairway cut into the solid rock of the cliff. It was lined on one side with a low, stone wall that looked as if material had been quarried elsewhere and brought to the stairway.
Our captors seemed to be conditioned to using the steep stairway. They got into a rhythmic movement so that they were racing downward and Eric and I were hard pressed to keep up. Besides, there were no railings along the stairs, just the low stone wall on one side. A misstep could send one of us tumbling into space. But the men seemed not to mind the apparent danger and keep pushing at us.
By the time we reached the bottom, I was breathing hard and sweating heavily. When the men stopped, I bent over, my elbows resting on my knees as I gulped air. My legs ached from the strain of running down the steps. I turned my head and saw that Eric was in the same shape as I. Our captors, however, were showing no signs of the strain of the rapid trip and descent on the stairs. It was all a big game to them.
They waited patiently, letting us gain our breaths, and then urged us onward. The path we followed at a gentle slope had been paved with blocks of stone cut from somewhere else. They were polished by the feet of hundreds, thousands of people, and were as smooth as the finest marble. There were ditches along either side that were carpeted in short grass.
We entered the town, following a road that was also paved in stone. The houses on either side were of adobe with yellowing thatch on top giving them a golden color. As we moved deeper into the town, the inhabitants came out to watch us. Some deserted the fields where they tended crops. They lined the streets, at first, just scattered clumps of humanity staring at us. As we neared the center of the city, the number of people increased.
The were all short and stocky, each with dark hair and dark eyes. The men and women were about the same height, and the closer we moved to the plaza, the brighter the colors they sported. It was as if we were moving from the poorer sections of town, into the wealthy. And the more wealth, or the higher their station, the more colors they wore. Many had intricate capes that had been woven from the brightly colored feathers of birds. Many held ornaments of gold or silver.
The cheering began the closer we got to the plaza. As we moved into the center of the city, the people rushed forward, lining the sides of the plaza. At the far end was a tall building, a structure of pyramidal shape with a long ramp leading to a massive door. Men in white cloaks and holding spears of solid gold guarding the ramp, facing each other across it.
We were led to the foot of it. Around us danced children. Boys and girls, thirteen or fourteen years old. They were dressed in diaphanous white cloth. There was something innocent, yet sad about them.
The people now burst into cheering that I didn’t recognize, although, from their tone, I could tell that they were praying. A priest, at first, seemed to be speaking privately with his god, and then he began to shout, as if angry. He looked down at Eric and me, pointed, his finger stabbing down, accusing us of some unknown crime.
Two of the white-clad guards, dropped their spears and came toward us, but then grabbed one of the girls, lifting her to her feet. She wailed in fear as they dragged her toward the man on the ramp.
They left her standing in front of the man. Her posture was rigid. She held her hands behind her back, thrusting her chest out. She seemed to be shaking slightly as she held her head high, her eyes closed.
The man yammered on, lifting a sparkling knife high, the point aimed at the girl.
The crowd now looked up, fascinated by the show going on in front of them. They all seemed to hold their breath, anticipating the final act.
The man stopped speaking, looking at the sky, and then at the girl. He plunged the knife into her chest, just under her breastbone. For a moment she stood as if transfixed. As the crimson stain spread across her white garment, her knees buckled and she fell. As she dropped, her blood pumping from her to pool under her, the crowd began to chant again.
Once more the guards came down the ramp. This time I was sure they would come for me. Their eyes seemed locked on mine. I decided that I was going to sell my life dearly. I wasn’t a docile young girl. I would shoot the guards and then the man on the ramp. The crowd would probably tear me apart, but it was better than standing there quietly.
But they didn’t come for me or Eric. They selected one of the boys and took him up the ramp. He seemed to be oblivious to everything around him as he assumed the same position as had the girl. Arms behind his back and chest thrust outward.
Again there was a prayer and again the man killed the youngster in front of him, to the wild approval of the crowd. As the boy fell next to the girl, the chanting erupted again.
My arms were seized then and I struggled to free myself. I stomped on the foot of one of the men. He was startled enough by the pain of the assault that he loosened his grip. Free of him, I spun on the second, slamming my fist onto his jaw. He dropped to the ground, moaning.
My hand clawed at the snap on my holster, and as I tried to draw my pistol, three men rushed me. One held back as the other two waded in. I forgot about my weapon, punching outward. I hit one man near the eye and felt the fragile bones of his face break. He screamed in surprise and pain, but kept coming.
I twisted to the right and threw a punch at the other man. I missed and staggered forward, off balance. As I did, I felt a blow to the back of my head. There as an explosion of light and I sank to my knees. For a moment the world swirled in front of me and when my sight cleared, one man held a sword to my throat as two more lifted me to my feet.
This is truly it, I thought. I had been through a war, shot at by everything from pistols to howitzers, had fought the Hun hand to hand and I was going to die near the foot of a ramp, the sacrifice to some deity of which I had never heard.
I glanced at Eric and saw that he was held as firmly as I. At his feet lay the body of one man, blood pouring from his mouth. I didn’t know whether Eric had killed him or merely knocked him out.
With the chanting growing in volume, I fully expected to be taken up the ramp to where the bodies of the children lay, their blood staining the stone as it ran down toward the plaza, but that didn’t happen. Instead, we were dragged to the side. The crowd parted, letting us pass. We were taken through a stone doorway, down a hall lighted with flickering torches and bubbling fat lamps until we came to a stairway. We were forced down it until we had reached a stone passage. Our footsteps echoed as we walked along it. I could hear water dripping somewhere.
We stopped in front of an iron door. One man opened it, and stepped. Eric was shoved into the cage. Before he could catch his balance, I was pushed in after him. The door was slammed and locked. The men then turned without a word, vanishing from sight, taking the torches with them. We were left in the darkness.
My first reaction was to feel my along rough stone of our cell. I found a slit in wall that was barely large enough for my hand. I leaned into it and although couldn’t find the end I learned the walls were impossibly thick. I continued on until I came to the iron door.
As I touched it, Eric said, "I don’t understand this. Why throw us in prison?"
I kept my hands roving over the surface of the door. I could feel huge bolts on our side and I found a tiny slot near the floor so that food could be pushed through. At the thought of food, I caught another odor.
Trying to ignore that, I sat down, my back to the door and said, "They obviously think we’re someone else. Someone who has been here before."
"Took our knives away from us but not our guns. How do you figure that?"
I shrugged, knowing full well that Eric couldn’t see the gesture. "They’ve never seen guns before and don’t think of them as weapons."
I didn’t like that explanation because we knew others had explored the region before us. They would have had guns. If not pistols, rifles and should understand them, but they didn’t bother with them.
"I should have drawn when we had the chance at the boat. We let them take us too easily."
"And we would have died when those men with the crossbows opened fire."
"That’s better than letting that one jerk stick a knife into my chest."
I didn’t want to talk about what we should have done any more. There were other things we needed to thing about and do. I patted my pockets and found that I had no matches. I asked Eric if he had any.
"Yeah. I’ve got most of a box."
"Then we can have a little light." I moved to the right, feeling my way along the rough stone floor. It was damp and slimy. I hoped that it was mud that I was feeling. I came to a raised area covered with dirty straw. I twisted a handful together and said, "Use one of you matches on this."
The match flared and Eric touched it to the straw. That burned slowly and gave us the opportunity to examine our cell. It was a stone enclosure that was twenty feet across, twenty feet deep and twenty feet high. A green moss climbed the walls and I hoped that meant it received sunlight sometimes. I pushed my face into the slit and saw that it might be a window to the outside, although there was a stone now blocking it.
I turned back to the interior. There were six raised platforms, each covered with straw. There was a single hole in the floor that was giving off a stench that made me believe it was our toilet. The room could have held more captives. There was no sign that they had held anyone recently.
The stones of the walls were so well cut that there wasn’t the thinnest crack between them. We wouldn’t be able to climb them. The door was made of metal that could easily be iron. There was a lock on it and I thought about trying to pick it, but even if that was successful, I was sure that there was a bar across it on the outside holding it closed.
As the straw burned down close to my hand and I could feel the heat from the fire, I said, "I think getting out of here will be a piece of cake." I dropped the straw and was about to crush out the flames when I decided that wasn’t necessary.
"Getting out of here is easy?" said Eric. "How is it going to be easy?"
"Next time the open the door, we shoot the guards," I said
Saturday, April 23, 2011
We left the boat and crossed the beach, and then the grassy field in front of us. I glanced to the left where there was a stone cliff that seemed to climb into the very heavens and I could see no top to it. The cliff rose steadily, straight up until it was wrapped in a mist not at all unlike the one we had spent the morning in. I say morning because the sun looked as if it had just reached its zenith, indicating that it was noon or maybe a few minutes after.
We stopped at the edge of the jungle, some five or six hundred yards from the bank of the river. Looking down the pathway in front of us was nearly impossible. In only a few feet, a blackness wrapped the trail, making it seem like the bewitching hour of the darkest midnight. The sunlight was cut off completely by the dense, thick foliage. There were a few sounds from the dense vegetation. Animal noises like a giant snake slithering along the trail, or the rapid patter of tiny feet, as if an animal was fleeing the snake. There weren’t the calls of wild birds or the screams of monkeys that jungles on the surface would have rocked with.
Eric stood there, staring down the trail, as if he could actually see something, and then turned toward me. "What do you think?"
I scratched my head in thought and then wiped the sweat from my face. I turned, studied the cliff behind us and then looked at the perimeter of the jungle.
"We could either enter here, or work our way farther to the south," I said. I don’t know how I had determined that the direction to the cliff was north and the opposite way was to the south, but it seemed to make sense to me.
"I like the second choice. I don’t want to enter the jungle until we have to."
"The third option," I said, "is to return to the boat and let it take us farther downstream. That would be the easiest way for us to travel."
"Granted," said Eric. "But we wouldn’t have a feeling for the land then. It seems to me that the best idea is to search the land here until later afternoon, penetrate the jungle at some point, and return to the beach toward nightfall, if we haven’t found anything interesting by then."
"Good," I said, not relishing the idea of searching the foliage. I had read too many of the jungle adventure books and was concerned about what might lie in that direction.
We skirted the jungle, stopping occasionally to stare into the depths of the vegetation. Nothing was visible to us that we hadn’t seen before and if we wanted a clue about what was ahead, we would have to enter. We finally found another path that broke the nearly solid wall of green in front of us. We stopped to examine it. A dirt path that was well used. It ran straight for nearly fifty feet before we lost it in the gloom of the jungle.
"What do you think?"
"If we’re ever going to learn anything, we’re going to have to use a path. This one is as good as any."
"Right," said Eric. He unslung the rifle that he had over his shoulder and checked the safety. "Let’s go."
I followed him, holding my own rifle in my hands, my eyes leaping from side to side.
The path looked as if it had been graded through the jungle. The forest around us came together about ten feet over our heads making it look as if we were walking down a long, green tunnel. The dirt under our feet had been compressed by the pressure from a thousand others until it was as hard and as smooth as concrete. Very little light filtered through and that which did had a distinct, green cast to it.
In only a few minutes we were out of sight of the entrance to the jungle path. I turned once, glancing back, but could see nothing except the gloom around us.
And I could smell the jungle. First it stunk of mildew and rotting vegetation. It also was rank with the odor of wet dirt. I say wet dirt instead of mud. And finally there was the taste of humidity around us. Damp air that hung around us, soaking us like wet blankets in a sauna.
Eric’s pace slowed as the heat began to get to him. We had come up from the late winter or early spring of the Midwest, through the colder areas of Canada, to a point far above the arctic circle, and suddenly, we found ourselves in a tropical environment. The heat bothered us greatly.
But we continued on. The path widened in spots, the ground on either side bare, as if these were some kind of rest areas at the side of a long road. No shelters had been erected and there was no evidence of any fires, but then who would build a fire in this sweatbox of a jungle?
Finally we came to a much wider area where the canopy over us broke and the light from the sun filtered through. The grass had grown tall in the clearing. The path wound through the center of it, and there was a portal in the green that looked just like the entrance we had used to enter the jungle several hours earlier. To one side, it seemed that the trees had been draped with gauze that hung from the highest branches and brushed the ground.
Off to the right, there was a rustle in the grass, and I could see the blades rippling as if something was trying to sneak through it. I moved in that direction, wondering what was there. I spotted a large mass, maybe two or three feet across, brightly colored, as it slipped forward. I stopped, fascinated. Then the head poked out, onto the bare, brown earth of the path.
It was a scale covered, triangular head nearly four feet long. A thin tongue flickered from the reptilian lips as the hooded eyes blinked in the bright sun. As I stood transfixed, the massive head turned toward me. The beast stopped moving as the tongue probed the air and the eyes blinked rapidly.
I wondered if the rifle I carried had sufficient power to kill the snake. I had yet to see the whole thing, but it had to be sixty or seventy feet long and the pattern on its scaley back seem to be diamonds. I was afraid that I had found the largest rattlesnake that had ever lived.
Eric, who had frozen as the first sound, began to retreat very slowly, his eyes locked on the snake. He was mumbling, over and over, "Oh God. Oh God."
I heard a quiet click as he snapped off the safety and then the metallic rattle as he chambered a round.
At the sound, the snake drew itself up, as if coiling to strike. I knew the smaller American rattlers could lunge out to nearly one third of their length with ease. That meant we were well within the striking distance of this beast.
"Freeze," I hissed.
Eric followed my command.
The snake watched us, as if waiting for movement, or maybe wondering if we were prey. When neither of us made a threatening move, it began to crawl away, toward the gauze hanging from the trees.
We watched its progress through the grass, amazed at the size of the creature. I knew that the bite of a normal rattlesnake often was not fatal, but the danger here was not from the venom but the fangs. They could have pieced the body.
And I didn’t think about it then, but what kind of creature would a snake of that size attack? What was its prey? It could have swallowed an elephant had one been available for it to eat. It certainly could have swallowed a human.
The snake stopped when it reach the gauze curtain, seemed to inspect it and then turned away from it, and us, entering the jungle to what I thought of as the west. That was the direction we had been heading, but we now had no desire to travel that way or to find that snake again.
Eric slung his rifle after putting on the safety, but left the round chambered. He stepped from the path, into the thigh high grass, walking toward the gauze curtain.
As he approached it, I saw small, black creatures the size of dinner plates suddenly spring from the trees, catching themselves in the gauze. Some of them fled upward, as if escaping an enemy. Others seemed to slide downward, spreading out in a lopsided formation.
I followed Eric, stopping short of him. He was staring upward and then said, amazed, "They’re spiders. Big, ugly spiders."
I moved closer and at the bottom of the web, I could see the bones of the animals that had been caught and eaten. There weren’t just small animals either. Some of the bones were large and I was sure that I could see a human rib cage in the web.
Then Eric pointed and said, "That’s a skull. A human skull."
Almost as if the sound of his voice irritated them, the spiders began to swarm. One of them leaped clear of the web, sailing through the air, trailing a thin strand of silk.
Eric dropped to one knee and grabbed at the butt of his rifle, slipping it from his shoulder.
I aimed at the spider like it was a clay pigeon on a skeet range. I pulled the trigger and felt my weapon kick as it fired. The round caught the spider in the abdomen and it exploded into a red mist and fragments of dark meat.
Eric got to his feet and began to back up, his eyes on the spiders. They were all in motion now and there was a strange warbling sound coming from them. A trilling that rose and fell like the siren on a fire truck. Eric aimed his weapons at one of them still in the web and fired. The creature vanished in a flash of red that stained the gauze crimson.
One of them dropped to the ground near me and reared up on its hind legs, showing me its long fangs. It was waving the front legs in the air, as if to frighten me. I knew that if I turned, the spider would leap onto my back. Instead, I pointed my rifle at its head and fired. The creature flipped over, onto its back.
With that, they fell silent and stopped moving. Eric fired again and again, working the bolt of his rifle and ejecting the spent cartridges. He killed seven of the spiders and then glanced over at me.
"Let’s get out of here."
I didn’t need any encouragement. As soon as he passed me and back into the jungle, I spun and followed, expecting to feel one of those spiders leap at me. The skin on my neck crawled with the tension. Shivers ran up and down my spine. But the spiders didn’t attack. Maybe it was the deaths of their fellows that stopped them. Watching their brothers turned into splashes of blood and meat stayed them, although I couldn’t believe that spiders had any real intelligence. I knew there weren’t that many varieties behind us that worked in harmony, there were a few. Instinct rather than intelligence drove them.
Or maybe it was just that we stayed out of the web and because of that, they let us retreat.
When we were clear of the area, Eric stopped and turned. "My God," he said. "You don’t even have to get entangled in the web. They come out after you."
We’ll just have to be that much more careful," I said, surprised at how calm I sounded. The encounter with the snake and the spiders left me shaking. Spiders and snakes were two of the creatures that inspired the most ridiculous of responses. Nearly everyone feared them instinctively, but because we were so much larger, we could overcome that fear. Except here. Spiders that were over a yard across and seemed to attack their prey and a snake that dwarfed telephone poles.
Eric looked at me, a strange smile on his face. "I just had a thought. What if the spiders that attacked us were scouts and the big ones have yet to show themselves?"
I suddenly felt eyes on my back and I jumped. I spun, leveling my rifle but there was nothing there. Not even a bit of wind.
To Eric I said, "Let’s use the boat until we clear the jungle area. Drift on down the river."
"Well," he said, "I’m not convinced that it’s the best idea because the water could hide things worse than either the giant spiders or snakes."
"Thanks," I said. "Thank you for bringing that up."
"Any way," he said, "I think you’re right about one thing. We should get out of here. We can beat it back to the boat, gather some fire wood and set up camp for the night."
I wasn’t sure that I was keen on that plan either. It seemed that we would be safer in the boat, even if it was anchored only a few feet off shore.
We worked our way through the jungle and burst onto the open plain an hour or so later. I dropped to the ground, the breath rasping in my throat. Sweat was pouring from me and my clothes were drenched. I had already drunk all the water in my canteen and cotton had formed in my mouth. Relief, however, was only a few feet away, on the bank of the river.
I glanced up, at the sun, and saw that it hadn’t moved. I pointed and said, "Eric, the sun is stationary."
He glanced at me, raised a hand to shade his eyes and then looked up at the sun. It seemed as if it was only a few minutes afternoon, just as it had for the last several hours.
"Yeah," he said. "Just as my father described it. He said that on entering, he discovered that the sun didn’t move. The land of perpetual light.
I laughed. It actually took a load off my mind. I hadn’t wanted to spend the night ashore, not knowing what other creatures might be roaming freely. I envisioned giant leeches and giant tigers and massive lions. Now, they wouldn’t be able to sneak up on us in the dark because there would be no dark.
Eric took his watch from his pocket and looked at the time. "We’ve been traveling for several hours since we came ashore. Now we don’t know how long we were in the fog, but we were awake for several hours. I suggest we assume that it is six in the evening and plan from there."
"All right," I agreed. "Then it’s time for supper."
"You get that ready," he said, "and I’ll draw water from the river."
We set up our makeshift camp on the edge of the grassy plain, close to the river and away from the jungle. The nearest trees were fifty or sixty feet away and the main jungle a good half mile away. Nothing could get to us easily, without us spotting it. Any creature would either have to cross the meadow or the mud of the beach.
We ate in silence. I had wanted to fish to add something fresh to our supper, but Eric had said that we could do that in the morning. Now, it was important to get the camp established and that a meal of jerky and coffee wouldn’t be all that bad. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been eating that for some time now.
The fire was a smokey one because the wood was damp. I didn’t like that because I felt it was advertizing our presence, but I didn’t know to whom. I couldn’t explain the feeling. It had seemed that someone had been watching us from the moment we had come ashore, and yet, I had seen no evidence of that. I finally could stand it no longer and kicked the fire out, pouring water from the river on it to extinguish the last of the embers.
We talked for a while, our eyes drawn to the stationary sun waiting for it to dip to the horizon but it never moved. A few light, wispy clouds drifted toward it. The sky over us had a natural blue tint to it but it didn’t have the depth that the sky outside had. Rather than stretching toward infinity, it seemed that someone in a plane could actually reach the top of it where they wouldn’t be able to travel any higher. I didn’t know if the impression was because I knew that I was inside of the Earth or if it was because I could see something that wasn’t visible on the outside .
Eric finally suggested that we try to get some sleep. He didn’t think it was necessary to stand watch. Other than the beasts we had seen deep in the jungle, the animal and plant life seemed relatively harmless.
I agreed with him and watched as he spread his sleeping bag at the edge of the meadow, using the grass for a mattress. Because of the tropical heat, he laid on top of it. For a moment he was still and then he sat up to unbutton his shirt. He pulled his backpack close to use it as a pillow and then settled down again.
"Relax, Dave," he said, his eyes still closed. "We’re perfectly safe here. Nothing’s going to get at us."
"Sure," I said, and then spread my sleeping bag out near his. But I didn’t like the idea of both of us sleeping at the same time. Maybe it was my military training or maybe it was the strangeness of the land we’d found or maybe it was the few glimpses we’d had of some of the local fauna, but I was uncomfortable. I could still feel those unseen eyes on my. I knew there were dangers out there, even if Eric refused to acknowledge them.
It wasn’t long before I heard a single, ragged snore and knew that Eric had fallen asleep. He had one arm over his eyes to block that ever present sun. I sat there quietly, listening to the sound of the water in the river and the rustling of leaves as a light breeze blew. The last thing I wanted to do was go to sleep now, with Eric out of it.
It was just as Eric said, however. I sat quietly watching, but nothing left the jungle or the water. No beasts tried to creep up on us to devour us. Overhead I saw a bird or two and from the jungle came the occasional cries of animals, but nothing that was frightening.
Slowly, I relaxed, thinking of all the explorers who had set up camps all over the world and who had not bothered with guards or sentries. It wasn’t as if we had unlimited manpower. With five or six people we could have mounted a guard rosters and no one would have been taxed by it, but here, it was impossible. There were only the two of us.
Finally I laid back, my head resting on my pack. I placed my hat over my eyes and found that I didn’t like that. I put my hat on the ground beside me, telling myself that the slightest sound would awaken me, just as they had when I had been fighting they war in Europe. I could sleep through artillery barrages, but the scrape of a foot outside my bunker would bring instantly awake, a weapon in my hand.
For a long time I laid awake, listening to the sounds of this strange new world around me. Quiet, relaxing sounds that dulled the senses and helped bring on the sleep. Then, just like Eric, I was out of it.