Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter Ten

Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy. I realized that as soon as I said it. For one thing, we were isolated in darkness and I was sure that the guards would have torches with them. When they opened the cell door, they light would momentarily blind us, unless we had prepared for it. Now, that would be simple. When we heard someone coming, we could set a bundle of straw on fire to let our eyes adjust to the light.

I sat on the cold, damp stone and thought about everything that had brought me to this point. The only choice I had made was when Eric had arrived at my room in Kansas City. From that point I had drifted along, taking everything in stride. I had thought nothing through to the end and that was the reason I was now sitting in the cold dark cell. I hadn’t even been inclined to fight our captors until I saw the sacrifice of the children. Just drift along and let things flow in their natural direction.

“Once we’re out,” said Eric, “What’ll we do?”

“What was the purpose of this expedition?” I asked.

“Find a passage through the Earth’s crust and explore the Inner Earth. Prove that my father wasn’t deluded and learn what happened to him.”

“Have we succeeded in that?”

I heard a rustling as if he had moved to the straw bedding. “In a way,” he said, “but we have no proof. The pictures we were going to taken as proof are impossible because the camera is at the bottom of the river.”

“Eric,” I said, “we know where the place is. We know it exists. Hell, until we got here, you have to admit that there was a certain amount of doubt about it. But now that we know, we can come back with a proper expedition.”

“Yes,” he said.

“We know what we need now. Long boats and twenty men. Photographers and journalists. Weapons. We know exactly what we have to do.”

“Financing,” he said.

“Did you look around? There is gold all over the place. One of those ceremonial spears would be worth enough money to finance half a dozen expeditions.”

I had another thought and added, “Even the hint that there is gold for the taking ought to interest some. We can finance it that way.”

“You’re right,” he agreed. “So our first task is to escape from here.”

“And our second is to find a way out of the Inner Earth. With our boat gone, we’ll need to locate one of the land entrances.”

“Or steal another boat,” he said. “Now, what’s your idea about escaping.”

I told him that one of us would have to be awake at all times, listening for the guards. When we heard them, we would have to light a couple of clumps of twisted straw so that our eyes would be ready.

“When the door opens, we shoot everyone we see standing in the way,” I said.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Just gun down all of them?”

“Eric, my friend, just what the hell do you think they’re going to do to us? We’re going to be killed just as soon as the party is arranged.”

“How do you do that?”

“Because a number of these primitive civilizations do that. Enemies captured in battle, or on the frontier, are sacrificed to the various gods. Hell, the Aztecs needed so many people for their sacrifices that they made war on the people surrounding them just to supply the victims.”

“You’re not suggesting that we’ve found the Aztecs are you?” His voice was high and tight with disbelief.

“No, not the Aztecs,” I said. I had a feeling about this, but it didn’t lead to the Aztecs.

“So the first thing,” said Eric, “is to prepare for the return of the guards.”

“Right.” I grabbed a clump of straw and twisted it together. I set that aside and prepared another. I had Eric give me a couple of matches and put them in my pocket. Then, using my fingers, I checked my weapon, slowly stripping the rounds from it and then reloading the magazine with seven bullets. That done, I cocked it, chambering a round, released the magazine and added one more round. Now there were eight. Carefully, I lowered the hammer. My .45 would now fire once I pulled back the hammer.

I sat down on my straw bed and waited. I stared upward, into the dark, hoping that morning would come soon. I had a real problem with that. We had come into the prison at high noon, although it would have been about five or six, if the sun ever moved. As we descended and the light of day faded to be replaced by the artificial light of flickering touches, I had the impression of the sun setting. All of it was in my mind. Now, in total darkness, I thought of it as night, although, if we escaped, it would be the middle of the day.

I put those thoughts out of my mind. Instead, I concentrated on the expedition, amazed at the amateurishness of it. We had climbed into our truck, driven north, piled into the boat and ended up here. No great sacrifices, no real hardships. We just blundered our way through it all. I hadn’t even kept an accurate journal of the trip, although, if I had, I probably would have lost it by now.


I turned my head toward the sound of Eric’s voice.

“Dave,” he repeated. “I’m getting sleepy. You want to take the first watch.”

“Sure,” I said. I wasn’t in the least bit sleepy. In fact, my mind was racing. I felt like an idiot because of the way I had been acting. Slipshod. From one thing to the next without bothering to think about it. We had seen a snake that was almost a hundred feet in length and I hadn’t been surprised, or excited. I had wanted to run. We had found spiders that seemed to work together with a rudimentary kind of intelligence, and I had wanted to flee. I hadn’t thought to make notes about it. I hadn’t wanted to learn more about them. Not exactly good science or the things of a great expedition. I resolved to be a better scientist and explorer, when the chance showed itself.

All this was swirling in my head when I heard something at the far end of the dungeon. “Eric,” I hissed. “They’re coming.”

I dug in my pocket for my matches. I scraped one on the rough stone and it blazed. I blinked rapidly and touched it to the straw. As that began to burn, I looked away, rubbed my eyes and turned back, watching the flames.

Eric was up doing the same, his pistol in his hand. He glanced at me and grinned.

As the fire died, I heard voices outside our cell. There were at least three men there. I didn’t worry about that. They would not expect an attack, and if they did, they wouldn’t expect firearms. We would be able to shoot all three before they could react. That was to our advantage, but we had to be ruthless.

As I heard the key in the lock, I hoped that Eric could be as ruthless as me. I had never seen him in battle. I would have to rely on him.

The door was shoved violently, sweeping silently across the floor to bang against the wall. The clang reverberated throughout the dungeon. A torch was thrust into the cell, obviously meant to blind us.

I dropped to one knee, holding my pistol out in front of me, aiming at the door. A guard appeared, holding a short sword in his hand. As he stepped into our cell, I fired, the flame from the barrel stabbing out to touch his chest. He grunted in surprise and pain as crimson began to stain his rough shirt. He dropped to his knees.

A second man appeared and Eric fired. That guard dropped his sword as he twisted to the right.

There was a shout in the corridor. I leaped forward, over the body of the man I’d shot. As I entered the corridor, I caught a flicker in the corner of my eye. Instinctively I ducked. The blade flashed over my head and I felt the wind of the blow in my hair. The sword glanced off the stone wall with a dull, metallic clang. The guard shifted, attacking me. I jerked around and shoved my pistol into his belly. I pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.

The man recovered. He thrust at me and I dodged his blade. I used the side of the pistol and slammed it into his hand. He cried out in pain and staggered back. He tried to stab me again. With my free hand, I grabbed his wrist and jerked him toward me.

There was a shot behind me and the man dropped without a sound. I turned and saw the last guard fleeing along the corridor. The torch he had carried had fallen to the floor and was sputtering on the cold, damp stone.

I turned so that my right side was toward him. Slowly, I lowered my pistol, aiming at the center of the back. I squeezed the trigger until the weapon fired itself. The man was lifted from his feet. He clawed the air and then hit the floor. He bounced once and slid. He tried to get up and finally collapsed.

Behind me were two more shots. I spun and saw another guard leaning against the wall, dying. The yellow of his shirt was nearly obscured by his blood. In one hand, he clutched a sword. In the other was a torch that now lay against the stone.

Eric and I stood nearly back to back, watching the length of the corridor. Two torches lay on the stone floor. Two more were set in racks on either side of our door. One of the guards was groaning in pain.

There was a whimpering and I saw the woman for the first time. She was dressed as the children had been. A white robe that covered her from neck to ankles but that was so shear that I could see through it.

She looked up at me with huge brown eyes opened wide in fright. She put up a hand, as if to ward off a blow and said, “Por favor. Por favor.”

“Eric?” I said.

“I’m fine. You?”

“I’m okay. Let’s get out of here.”

“Which way?”

I reached down and pulled the woman to her feet. She stood rigid, her eyes staring at me, waiting for death. I pulled her to the side and took a torch from the wall. I handed it to her. She took it reluctantly, holding it away from her as if it was a serpent.

Before we moved, I took a dagger from the body of one of the guards. It seemed to have a gold blade and a jewel encrusted hilt. I tucked it into my belt and then began working my way along the corridor.

The woman was behind me, and Eric behind her. We stayed close to the wall. I ran one hand along the rough, wet texture as a guide. I listened intently, waiting for sounds that would indicate that more guards were coming.

From behind us, there was shouting but it didn’t sound like guards. It sounded like prisoners trying to figure out what had just happened. Wondering what the strange noise was.

We came to the end of the corridor. Three stone steps lead to a wooden door reinforced with iron. There were huge hinges with giant bolts. I climbed the steps, sure that the door would fly open. But it didn’t. I took hold of the large, metal ring that was the handle, sure that it wouldn’t open.

It swung toward me freely and quietly. As it came open, I jumped back, down the steps, my pistol raised. Behind the door there was nothing. Just another dark corridor that turned and lead to a stairway that would allow us to escape the dungeon.

We entered it and kept on moving. There were cell doors on both sides of us, but they all seemed to be empty. If there had been prisoners in them, I would have opened them, only for the confusion it would cause.

We came to stairs and hesitated. I listened but heard nothing. It was like no one knew what had happed, or if they did know, didn’t care. I looked back at Eric. His face was pale and the knuckles of his hand were white around the butt of his Mauser.

“You think it’s a trap?” he asked me.

“Don’t know.” I leaned against the wall and sat down. I ejected the magazine of my .45 and reloaded it. As I jammed the new rounds into it, I realized why it had failed to fire. If you push back on the barrel hard enough, it holds the hammer in place so that pulling the trigger does nothing. I had shoved the barrel into the guard’s stomach as hard as I could.

When I had my weapon fully loaded again, I stood up. I glanced at Eric. “Ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he said, grinning. “What about the woman?”

“We’ll kept her with us for a while. If nothing else, she’ll be able to answer a few questions.”

Without another word I was on my feet, moving up the stairs. Stone stairs worn in the middle from the feet of thousands of prisoners and guards.

As I climbed, I became aware of light filtering into the blackness of the dungeon. Bright light reflecting from the dull surfaces of the stone walls and knew that an exit was close at hand. I was worried about that. It seemed to have been too easy to escape from the cell. Everything seemed to be too easy.

Again, at the top of the stairs, I halted. I could see the rectangle because the sides were not parallel. It was a strange thing to notice then. Maybe I was beginning to pick up the scientific detachment that I had lacked earlier. Or maybe my mind was searching for the mundane because I didn’t want to think about what lay beyond the door. My thinking had only taken me to the entrance of the dungeon. I hadn’t thought about what we’d do once we had to leave the prison and try to reach the jungle.

I inched forward, waiting for guards to rush me. I waited for men to swarm in the door. But none of that happened. I could hear nothing from the outside. It seemed that the streets were deserted and I wondered if we had managed to escape into what would be the middle of the night.

I stopped at the entrance and dropped to one knee. To the right was the massive form of the pyramid that we had seen the day before. To the left was the empty plaza where the crowd had stood chanting and cheering. And directly in front of me, nearly a hundred yards away, were the houses of stone and thatch where the inhabitants lived.

There were no sounds coming from anywhere. The air was as dead as that in a graveyard. If it hadn’t been for the sun overhead, I would have sworn it was midnight.

Tentatively, I took a step out. I glanced to the right, at the smooth stone surface of the pyramid. There were a few high clouds behind it. This was a monument to the sun god. I was sure of that.

Without a word, I started across the plaza. Ornate symbols had been cut into the surface of it, hidden the day before by the thousands of people who had stood on it. The symbols were painted in a riot of color. Some of them so large that only someone standing at the apex of the pyramid would be able to appreciate them.

I glanced over my shoulder and found both Eric and the woman following me. We walked rapidly, hoping to reach the safety of the streets. With each step, I waited for the alarm that would signal that we had escaped.

We crossed half the plaza when a single long note sounded behind us. There was a rising shout from thousands of voices and the people flooded into the plaza from every direction. Leading them were warriors, dressed in padded armor, holding colorful shields and carrying a variety of weapons.

As soon as I saw the multitude, I halted. I turned so that I was facing the ramp where the youngsters had been murdered the day before and saw that the high priest, or whatever he was, stood upon it, surrounded by his protectors, watching the show.

Something bumped my back and I realized that Eric was standing behind me, his back against mine so that we could cover one another. The woman had fallen to the ground at our feet and was weeping as if she expected to die with us.

The warriors ran at us and then slid to a halt. They stood ringing us, their shields held chest high. They stared at us over the tops of them as the shouting seemed to reach a peak and then dropped suddenly.

All at once it was quiet in the plaza. There were thousands of people there. Men and women, all wearing knee-length robes in a variety of colors. Reds and oranges and yellows and bright greens and deep blues. Many wore hats of multicolored feathers.

When there was silence, the high priest began a religious ceremony. He would shout something and the crowd would respond. It went on for a few minutes and then there was utter silence. The thousands of people made no noise. Absolutely none.

The man on the ramp spoke quietly and the crowd drew back, away from the warriors that surrounded Eric, the woman and me.

“Looks like this is it,” I said, trying to sound brave. I felt a fluttering in my stomach, not unlike that which I felt as I had gone over the top in the war. I knew that any moment a German bullet would cut me down. Here, I knew that I would die. In only minutes.

On a command from the ramp, the warriors lowered their spears so that the tips were aimed about belly high. I thumbed back the hammer of my .45. Since no one moved, I didn’t fire. I didn’t want to start the bloodshed.

Behind me there was a shot and the sound of a body falling. With that, there was a surge at me. I fired at the man in the yellow shirt and the bullet slammed him to the ground. He rolled to his side, grunting, his blood staining the cut stones of the plaza’s surface.

Then I had no time to watch. The men were coming at me quickly and I fired as fast as I could pull the trigger. One man dropped at my feet but then my weapons was empty and there was no time to reload.

I grabbed the point of a spear thrust at my stomach and jerked it to the side. As the man stumbled close, I smashed his nose with the side of my weapon. He released the spear and grabbed at his face as he fell to the ground.

Behind me there were several shots and the I felt Eric bump against me. He said, “Oh,” quietly, almost under his breath and slipped to his knees.

The warriors all advanced, the spears leveled but stopped with the points only inches from my flesh. I turned and saw that the woman still lived, the hem of her robe stained with blood, none of it her own. Eric was on his knees, his hands raised, blood on the side of his head.

From the ramp I heard the priest speak, first in the language I didn’t know and then in Spanish. He told his warriors to escort us to our new quarters in the palace. We were not to be harmed and the woman would stay with us.

A warrior, dressed in finer clothes than the common soldier, a jeweled dagger at his hip, pushed his way through the crowd. He stopped near the man I had clubbed to the ground. The officer took his jeweled dagger from its golden sheath, flipped it in his hand, and neatly cut the throat of the wounded warrior. The blood splashed down the warrior’s chest as he toppled to his side with only a quiet groan. He must have known what was going to happen, but failed to protest or to try to protect himself. He accepted his fate with stoic silence.

With the wounded dispatched, the officer waved a hand, gesturing to the rear of the plaza. A corridor among the warriors and the citizens opened as magically as Moses parting the Red Sea. The officer then bent to help the woman to her feet and while he did that, I dropped the spent magazine from my pistol. As it clattered to the stone under foot, I slapped a new one in. If there was going to be any funny business, I wanted to be ready for it.

Eric touched my shoulder. I saw a cut above his right eye and asked, “How are you?”

“It’s superficial. Head wounds always bleed like that. It’s minor at best.”

As we began to walk across the plaza, under an escort of warriors, and toward the large building constructed of white stone that resembled marble, the crowd began to applaud and then chant. It seemed to be an approval of us. I didn’t know if it was because of the stand we had made, our escape, or just our bravery in general.

“Now what?” asked Eric.

“As long as they don’t try to take us into that prison again, Let’s see where we’re going and what is going to happen. This could be interesting.”

“More interesting than the dungeon?” he asked.

I knew what he meant by that. I said, “Let’s hope a little more hospitable, anyway.”