Saturday, March 31, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 17

Since speed was of the essence, we didn’t waste time. The head man, or village chief, or whatever he was called, ran off, shouting at his warriors and within moments, nearly a score of them stood near the gate. Eric and the two women approached a second later and as they neared, the chief ran into the jungle. The men followed him, stringing out along the path. I jogged after them with Eric and the women right behind me.
Once we were into the dense foliage, we slowed. The men began to watch the trees around us, their eyes darting from one dark branch to the next. A light breeze rustled the leaves and caused the shadows to shift and shimmer. A panicky man let an arrow fly, cutting through the blackness of a dense patch of leaves, but hitting nothing substantial.

With that we slowed even more. The headman was in a hurry, urging us on, but each of us thought about the peril that lay in front of us. These vampire-like creatures sweeping out of the shadows to rip open our throats. I felt my skin crawl as we moved deeper into the twilight world of the dense jungle.

The chief stooped and snatched at something caught on a bush. He held it up and shouted excitedly. Although I didn’t understand the words, I knew what he was saying. We were on the right path.

But now that we were into the jungle, out of sight of the village, the men were slow to respond. They were afraid of the creatures and I can’t say that I blamed them. None of them wanted to die as one of those hideous monsters ripped at his throat. The surge into the jungle had been bravado because everyone in the village was watching and I understood perfectly the psychology of it. Men were always braver when their fellows were watching and even braver when it was their women, but now, out of sight of the village, they were dragging their feet.

I didn’t blame them. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea either, but knew that we had to move rapidly if we were going to have any chance of success. I jogged forward and stood next to the headman, showing my support for him. Eric, Christine and Huana followed closely. We all stood staring at the men as they argued among themselves.

It was enough to turn the tide. The men, now shamed by the strangers, were again ready to go. The chief turned and ran down the path, holding the tattered cloth over his head like some kind of a banner.

For quite a while we maintained a quick pace. The men were strung out along the trail, hurrying along with us. I kept my eyes opened, ready for trouble. But we didn’t find it. The path wove north and east and then north again. It wasn’t the same one that we had used when we first headed into the village. I decided that there must be two or more gates in the bamboo stockade and we had left by a different one. I recognized nothing around me.

Then, in the distance, I heard the sound of running water. A quiet splashing like that of a large, slow-moving river. The chief came to a fork in the path, looked down one trail and then the other. Finally, unsure of what to do, took the trail to the left that lead, more or less, toward the water.

The jungle seemed to be just as dense as it had been from the moment we entered it, but there was a new odor in it. Not of the sea but of fish and water. Somehow the heat had become more oppressive.

Again, as I looked down the trail, I could see a point of light in front of us, a place where the jungle gave way to an open field. Looking to the right, I saw points of light shifting in the distance as the light breeze caused the vegetation to vibrate. It meant that we were skirting the edge of the jungle, just inside the trees. I doubted that we were going to find either the missing people or those horrid creatures.

Then, suddenly, the path jogged to the left and we were looking at a vast, open field that sloped gently to the river that was about a half mile away. At the edge of the water were a number of huts, some of them like the log cabins built by pioneers on the prairie and in the forests of the last century. Around them were grass huts, like those in the village where we were attacked. And, at the very edge of all that, sitting next to the bank of the river, was the most amazing sight. A wooden, three-masted ship that looked ready to put to sea.

Eric came up beside me and said, “What in the hell?”

“Looks Spanish,” I mumbled and suddenly understood so much. Understood who the people in the city were. Understood why they had insisted on speaking to us in Spanish. Understood what I had seen and knew that we were looking at the way to get out of this inner world hell.

The chief crouched at the side of the trail, his eyes on the ship and the village near it. The men had dived for cover, some of them refusing to look. It was as if they were afraid of the sight in front of them.

I moved forward, crouching low and asked in a quiet voice, “Are you going down there?”

Then, to my surprise, he said, almost echoing the words of Huana, “No. These are the eaters of babies. They would kill us all.”

“What about your missing people?” I asked.

“They are not down there. We have taken the wrong path. I was in error.”

I turned to stare at him. I noticed that he was more frightened of the people in the village than he was of the creatures who had attacked him.

I crawled forward and stretched out on the moist, soft earth of the jungle floor so that I could study the village. A man came out of one of the wooden buildings, turned and looked in our direction. He stared up as us for a few moments and then returned to the building. Another man appeared from a grass hut and walked to the ship. He climbed the gangplank and then disappeared below decks.

Even at the distance from which I was watching I could tell a couple of things. First, they were bearded white men. One of them wore armor that looked like that of the Spanish conquistadors of the late sixteenth century. That man had carried a sword, but I had seen no sign of a firearm. They may have lost them all over the decades or simply run out of powder with no one around who knew how to make more.

The chief was suddenly at my side, whispering in my ear, telling me that we had to get out. The search must continue now if we were going to have any chance of finding the missing people alive.

I had to agree with that, but I was looking at the way to escape this inner world with a little bit of ease and quite a bit of safety. Eric was off to the right and I knew that he was thinking the same thing, though he was probably thinking about his family as well. The whole point here had been to learn their fate and we had failed, to this point, of doing that. We had few clues about them. But neither of us wanted to meet those creatures again, especially on their home ground. It was time to separate ourselves from the natives.

I whispered to the chief that we had to talk with the men below us. Those in the village. He shook his head vigorously and grasped my arm. “No!” he said. “They will kill you.”

“No,” I said. “They will not.”

“They will kill you and eat your bodies.”

“They will not,” I repeated. “I have knowledge that they desire. We will be able to trade with them. All will be safe.”

“I will not go down there with you,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I don’t expect you to,” I said, watching him closely. He was so afraid of those white men that I thought he might try to kill us himself to stop us. I watched him carefully, looking for a sign that he was making a move to his weapon, but he just quietly backed away from me, as if I had suddenly become dangerous, which, after a fashion, I had.

Without a word, he signaled his men and they began to slide back into the jungle. I think they were all glad to be away from the baby eaters who lived by the river and I suspect they now believed that we too were baby eaters. We looked like those men down there and we were about to join them. Any good will we had earned in their village was probably now gone.

I watched them disappear into the jungle and when they were out of sight Eric said, in a normal tone of voice, “I suppose we can just walk down there.”

I was momentarily surprised but then realized we really had no reason to hide. In all the other places we had been, we had looked out of place. We didn’t look like any of the natives, but now, we were back with those of a solid European stock. They would see us as brothers, or, at least, I hoped they would.

“I don’t see why not,” I said. I turned my attention to Christine and asked, “Are you game?”

When she didn’t reply, I realized that she hadn’t understood the question so I repeated it, explaining to her what I had meant by it.

She looked apprehensive but said, “Yes, I am game.”

I expected Huana to put up a fight about this, but she didn’t seem to be frightened of the Spanish. Maybe it was because her people and the men below had some kind of trade agreement. Maybe they had all worked together at some time so she knew that the Spanish didn’t eat babies.

I waited, watching the scene below me. It seemed peaceful enough. There were quite a few men circulating among the buildings and the ship. I saw only a couple of women wearing the long dresses of a couple of hundred years ago. They moved quickly from one location to the next. I didn’t think there were many of them around, surprised that there were any at all.

When I was sure that the head man and his party had gotten a good start, I stood up. “Let’s go on down,” I said.

Without waiting for a response, I stepped from the jungle and out onto the plain. Once into the bright sunlight, I hesitated but there was nothing more to do. I waited for Eric and when he and the women caught up, I continued down the hill until I found a narrow, winding path almost hidden by the short, green grass and the brightly colored wild flowers.

As we neared the village, I heard music, guitar, flute and drum. There was some singing that blended in, but the words were buried in the music.

No one seemed concerned with us as we approached. If anyone was watching, if there were any guards out, I couldn’t see them. We walked right up to the edge of the village before anyone noticed us. Then, two men came running down the gangplank from the ship, disappeared behind a couple of adobe buildings and reappeared, running straight at us.

I didn’t like the way they ran, or even the fact that they were running toward us. There seemed to be something sinister in it. It was as if they were about to attack. I fingered my pistol but didn’t draw it. I held up a hand to halt my small party and to let the men know that we were peaceful.

The men ran around a corner of a building and slide to a stop right in front of us. Both were of medium height, had thick black hair and long, thick beards. Both wore medal breastplates and the curved helmets of the conquistadors. Each had a sword in a scabbard and a dagger in a sheath. Their clothing looked to be very old, frayed and worn, but clean.

I kept my hand up in greeting and said, to them, in Spanish, “Good afternoon.”

They looked at one another, surprised but then answered my greeting with one of their own. Then one of them said, “What are you doing here?”

“Trying to find a way home,” I said.

“Where is home?”

From the look of these men, I was sure they knew about the outside world, even if they had never been there. They were obviously descended from Spanish explorers who had somehow gotten themselves lost in this inner world.

I shrugged and said, “Kansas City.”

He looked puzzled and I said, “It’s in the new world. In the land found by Columbus...” Which wasn’t exactly true, but it was close enough.

“Ah,” said the man, grinning. He waved us forward and said, “Come. I think the captain will want to hear your story.”

That made sense to me. I gestured and said, “Please, lead the way.”

The man who had spoken turned and started off. I was bothered by the fact he hadn’t offered a name and didn’t seem interested in ours. As we started off, I noticed that the second man didn’t move until we were all heading toward the ship. It was a very neat way they had bottled us up without raising much in the way of suspicion.

We walked through the village but I couldn’t see much more than I had from the jungle. I could hear voices coming from the buildings and could see details such as glass in the windows, barrels of water next to some of the buildings, or benches outside of doors. Behind some of the windows, I saw faces watching us carefully.

We reached the ship and walked up the gangplank. I tuned to say something to Christine and saw a dozen men had been following us. All of them had drawn their weapons. I whirled to warn Eric and saw that there were more men coming up from below decks, also armed. The greeting was turning nasty.

“David,” said Eric.

I pushed Christine to the side, drew my pistol and opened fire. My first round caught the lead man on the gangplank and he fell to the dock. Those following him dived for cover.

I spun and aimed at one of the men. He jumped to the left, out of sight. An arrow flashed by and buried itself in the wood of the ship. There was a shout and two men ran at us. I slipped to a knee and pulled the trigger. The bullet struck the man in the center of the metal chest plate. I heard it punch through. He threw his hands up and collapsed to the deck, a spreading stain of crimson under him.

Then, suddenly, a dozen arrows thunked into the deck around us. Men, carrying crossbows, lined the railing. Each had an arrow notched and each was aiming at me or Eric. It was clear that the fight was suddenly over and any further resistance would mean that we would die.

I grinned, lowered the hammer of the pistol and pointed it at the sky. I bowed slightly and said, in Spanish, “You have won the point.”

A big man, in brightly colored clothes and holding a massive sword jumped from his hiding place and bellowed, “You are my prisoners.”

“Yes,” I conceded, “but I don’t understand why. We have done nothing to you.

“You have killed my men.”

“Only after they attacked us,” I said, wondering if I might not have been a little trigger happy, though after our treatment throughout this land, it wasn’t a completely irrational response to those armed men.

“No one attacked you,” said the man. “You opened fire without provocation.”

“We were in fear of our lives,” I said.

“No matter. You are now my prisoners.”

Before I could protest again, there was a leathery flapping in the air and I looked up instinctively. Swooping from the crow’s nest was one of those hideous creatures and beyond it, in the sky were another three. Suddenly I realized that the chief was going in the wrong direction. The people he sought were being held here, if they were still alive.

And I knew the chief have been right. These people did eat babies just as he had said.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 16

The scream woke me from a deep sleep. A piercing scream full of horror and pain and my first thought was that Huana had been right. The Husyna were attacking us.

As I leaped from my cot, my hand clawing at the pistol still tucked into my belt, I realized I was wrong. Huana was lying on the floor, her hands over her ears, the terror bubbling in her throat. Christine was kneeling near the door, her shoulders shaking as if she was cold. And Eric was at a window, the short sword stolen from the city in one hand.

When he saw me awake, he said, “I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.”

The scream came again and then there was the beat of leathery wings. Something solid slammed into the thatch of the hut, raining dust dirt and debris on us. There was a thrashing outside like something trying to tunnel through the roof. Curled fingers with long, sharp nails punched through. A second later, there was sunlight streaming in, nearly blinding me. A shape blotted out the sun and then something slammed into the floor.

I felt chills on my spine as I stood, staring into those hideous eyes. Without thinking, I raised the pistol and fired at point blank range. The round punched through the brown fur on the creature’s chest. It staggered as the blood began to spurt, staining the floor at its feet.

It looked dumbfounded as it reached towards its chest with its long, clawed fingers. It looked as if it was wrapping a cape around itself for protection.

I fired a second shot that smashed through the tough leather of the wings. It stood upright for just a moment longer and then fell as if its bones had suddenly disintegrated. There was a rattle in its throat as it drummed a hand on the hard wood of the floor as it died.

“My God,” I said when I could again speak.

“They’re all over the place,” said Eric.

I didn’t understand what he meant and leaped toward the door, shoving Christine to the side. I didn’t want her to become a target.

Outside was a scene of bedlam. Some of the men were running through the streets. A couple of them carried weapons, bows and arrows or a short blowgun-like thing. The creatures were circling overhead like vultures waiting for something or someone to die.

One of them folded its wings back like a falcon and plunged toward the ground, aiming at the back of a running man. At the last second, it spread its wings, slowing the dive. It struck the man on his spine, bowling him over. As he tried to get up, the creature clubbed him to the dirt, flipping him. It bent its head, the long sharp teeth bared, and then like the vampire of legend, tried to rip at his throat.

He had gotten his hands up and was holding the creature’s head away from his neck, but the strength of the beast was slowly winning the battle.

I aimed at the creature’s head and squeezed the trigger. I felt the weapon fire, the pistol jumping in my hand. I saw the round strike, exploding the beast’s head like a ripe melon. The man gave a shove, throwing the lifeless body to the right and scrambled to his feet. Then, looking neither right nor left, fled, his weapon left behind.

Another of the creatures appeared in the doorway. It held a small bundle wrapped in its arms. I could see a tiny foot. I wanted to kill the beast, but was afraid of hitting the child. Its mother leaped into view and swung at the beast with a large, thick stick. The creature took the blow, turned and swatted the woman, tumbling her out of sight.

I jumped from the hut and ran across the open ground. The creature dropped to the dirt and was running toward the gate. It didn’t see me. When a was close, I leaped, tackling it and it fell, rolled and lost the now screaming child.

As the creature turned, its evil eyes on me, I just grinned at it. It opened its mouth wide, showing me its already bloodstained fangs. I raised my pistol and fired, my eyes on those of the creature. I saw them go wide in surprise and then pain and finally go blank. The beast dropped into the dirt and didn’t move.

Eric was out of the hut now, running toward me. I saw one of the creatures staring at him like an eagle eyeing a mouse. It folded its wings and begin its dive. I aimed and fired, missed and fired again. The bullet hit the creature and it jerked, tried to open its wings to flee but failed. It hit the ground thirty feet from me with a loud, disgusting sound, like that of a melon dropped from great height.

At the noise, Eric spun and as he did, another of the creatures came at him. Instead of raising his sword, he dropped to his back. As the creature slowed and landed near him, Eric thrust with the sword. The razor-sharp blade sliced through the tough leather of the creature’s skin. Blood spurted and flowed and the beast toppled and died.

I whirled then and jumped back with my back against the thatch of the hut. I was wrapped in a cloud of dry, choking dust.

In front of me was one of the creatures, holding a limp woman in its hands. There was a splash of blood on her shoulder and down her chest.

The evil beast looked up then, locking its eyes on me as if trying to cast a hypnotic spell on me. It seemed to grin, showing its bloody teeth. I aimed carefully and fired. The round snapped the beast’s head back. It threw its arms up and dropped the woman. She crumpled to the ground and was still.

The beast landed on its back, its legs kicking spasmodically. With one hand it clawed at the dirt, digging deep lines near its hand and then it was quiet.

And then there was a shrill cry. A high-pitched sound that cut through the fighting. A single searing note. For a moment there was the ringing of metal on metal, metal against flesh, and then echoes of my last shot, and then nothing. The creatures were fleeing, Some were flapping their wings, pulling themselves into the sky. A few, carrying small bundles, ran for the gate and the safety of the jungle beyond.

I dropped to one knew, steadied my gun hand, with my other and aimed. I felt the weapon kick back and one of the running beasts sprawled forward. Its burden, wrapped in white, rolled free. The tiny shape was then sitting up, wailing in fear and pain. A woman broke from one of the huts, running toward the crying child.

Eric was beside me then. “You okay?” he asked.

Slowly I got to my feet. I looked at the scene around me. There were bodies scattered over the whole village. Men, women, children, cut down by the vile creatures. They lay sprawled near the doors of their huts, in the streets or near one another. Mingled among them were the corpses of the creatures, many of them looking as if they had already been wrapped in shrouds. Several small fires burned, throwing smoke into the bright blue of the sky. Slowly the people came from their huts, out of hiding and looking at the damage around them. A few fell to their knees, crying in anguish, looking like the figures of a terrible flood or a sudden tornado.

I turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. During the war, I had seen battlefields when the fighting had ended, but this was worse than anything I remembered. There weren’t many dead, fifteen or twenty at the most, but it was how they had died. And it was who had died. There was no justification for killing children and yet five or six of the dead were kids.

I looked at Eric and saw his eyes were hated filled. “We should hunt them down and wipe them out,” he said.

I understood the feeling but said, “How? With one pistol and a couple of bows and arrows?”

“Then we wait right here and ambush them on their return.”

“What about your family?” I asked. “I thought we were looking for them.”

He seemed not to hear me and said, “We get out of here and go buy rifles and machine guns. We then come back here and help these people defend themselves.”

He stood staring for a long time. I don’t know what he was seeing just then. Finally he nodded, as if regaining consciousness and said, “Yes. We could get guns. That would certainly put an end to this.”

I didn’t tell him that if we armed this village, the creatures would just find another to attack. One that couldn’t protect itself, but then I realized you couldn’t bleed for the entire world, or rather inner world. You did what you could for those you could help and hoped there was someone else somewhere else who could pick up the slack.

Before I could said anything, one of the men who had brought us to the village walked up. His eyes were fixed on my pistol. He stopped near me and said, in Spanish, “We thank you for your help. We drove them off with only a few people hurt. Now we must go into the jungle to find those taken.”

“Will that do any good?” I asked.

“Sometimes we can save one or two. Sometimes not. But it is something that must be done.”

“All right,” I said. “We’ll go with you.”

The man grinned broadly, showing white teeth that had been filed to a point. It was the first primitive custom that I had seen. He reached out a hand and grasped my shoulder at the same time. “Good. Very good.”

Eric stared at as if I had lost my mind and said, “You’re not serious, are you?”

I shrugged. “What can I say? If there’s a chance of saving any of those people...”

“But to go after those things. On their home ground with the limited weapons we have left.”

I waved a hand to indicate the others and said, “They’re going into the jungle after them. And they’re going in the direction we want to travel. We can help them find their missing friends. On the way, we might find our way out of here, or we might find an indication about your family. No matter what, we’ve got ourselves an escort.”

Eric hesitated and then nodded. “I guess I’ll go and tell the women.”

“Huana should be happy about it. She’ll be getting away from the village.”

“Somehow,” said Eric, “I suspect that this will be like getting out of th frying pan and into the fire.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you mean.”

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 15

After a breakfast of fruit and water stripped from the leaves as Huana had shown us, we began to work our way through the jungle. There wasn’t the sense of urgency that had pressed us the day before. The soldiers had failed to locate our trail and had probably returned to tell the high priest that they had failed to find us.

Travel through the jungle didn’t give us much chance for conversation. On one hand, the travel was difficult, taking most of our strength, and on the other, we didn’t want to make any extra noise that could lead searchers to us, if any were close, or if any were still searching.

After a couple of hours, we came to a wide path that looked as if it was used frequently by humans. There were footprints in the soft mud at the edge of it. I stopped beside it and waited for Eric to catch up to me.

“Well,” I said. “You think it’s safe for us to follow it?”

He shrugged and said, “Ask them.”

I switched to Spanish and asked where the path lead. Christine shook her head and Huana refused to answer me. I stood and stepped closer to her. I asked again.

“To the Husyna,” she said as if that was supposed to mean something to me.

“What are the Husyna?” I asked.

She shook her head, her eyes on the ground between her feet. She refused to look up.

“Are these the baby eating monsters that you told us about?” I asked her.

She nodded slowly. “Very bad. Kill all strangers and then eat the babies.”

I sighed. It sounded like they were ordinary, garden variety cannibals. The last thing I wanted was to be eaten, but I didn’t see that as any more horrible than dying at the hands of three sword-wielding soldiers or having my throat cut in the name of the god of the sun.

“So what do we do?” asked Eric.

“The trail looks like it moves more or less in the direction that we want to go, that is, toward the river. Let’s follow it and play the situation by ear.”

Huana protested again, saying that she would rather return to the town than face the Husyna, but as we began to move along the path, she joined us. She wasn’t happy about it, but she stayed with us, moving as rapidly as we were.

The trail seemed to open up into a long green tunnel with a brown floor. The traffic along the path was heavy at times, as indicated by the lack of overgrowth, but we saw no one along it. We just kept moving, ducking under an occasional low hanging branch or two.

Finally, like the light at the end of a tunnel, we saw the end of the jungle. Huana stopped us again. As we crouched in the wet and dripping vegetation, we could hear the sounds of a civilization. Maybe I should say that we could hear the sounds of people in the distance. Voices, cries, and the screams of animals drifted to us. It sounded like the normal noise from a normal village. Nothing frightening about it.

Huana was badly frightened anyway. Her skin had gone pale, her eyes were wide and when I touched her hand, her palm was clammy. I turned and looked down the trail, but there was nothing visible there, other than the bright sunshine marking the end of the dimness of the thick jungle.

“Come on,” I said. “It can’t be as bad as you claim.”

She didn’t answer me. Instead, she shook her head and pointed to the rear. I turned and saw three human shapes enter the trees. They seemed to be naked. Each carried a long bow that had to be five or six feet in length. They seemed to know we were there because they didn’t stop to point or converse. They came at us, a long arrow notched and pointed in our general direction.

“What do we do?” asked Eric.

I stood up and turned to face them. Slowly, I drew the pistol from what I had tucked it in my belt and thumbed off the safety. The terror that Huana displayed was infecting me. I felt the urge to open fire, figuring I could shoot each of the approaching men before they realized what was happening.

Eric joined me, holding the sword in his right hand, the tip pointing at the ground. His breathing was ragged, as if he had just run a great distance.

I glanced over my shoulder and said, “Can either of you talk to these guys?”

Neither of the women answered. They stayed behind us, crouched at the edge of the trail, looking as if they were about to bolt. Or more probably, about to die.

“Come on,” I hissed. “Can you talk to them?”

Reluctantly Christine stood. She stepped close and looked over my shoulder. In a voice that was tinged with fright, she said, “I think so.”

The men didn’t slow down. They kept coming, walking rapidly. They ignored the jungle around them, their eyes on me and the others with me.

“Shoot them!” demanded Huana, her voice high and strained. “Shoot them!”

“Shut up!” I snapped.

Eric lifted his sword and said, “David?”

I felt the same panic. I didn’t like the way they were coming at us. I didn’t like the arrows or the looks on their faces. I thought about putting a round into the dirt at their feet, but wasn’t sure how they would react. I wasn’t sure they would understand the warning shot.

And just when it seemed that they were going to walk over us, they stopped and fanned out. The man in the center stepped forward a pace or two closer while the men at his sides slipped off the trail, taking up positions in the dense jungle vegetation.

For a moment each group stood staring at one another. These men were dark skinned, well muscled and taller than the people from the city. They were about six feet tall. Two of them wore beards but the leader was clean shaven. Each of them had rope like scars on their faces and more of the same on their chests. They had black curly hair and wore loin clothes.

“Greetings,” I said in Spanish.

The leader looked right and left and then answered me, also in Spanish. “What do you want?”

I stared at him, watching him closely. “We have just come from the city...”

The man suddenly grinned and reached out as if to clap me on the shoulder, though he was still several yards away. “Of course,” he said. “Come with us. Welcome to our humble village.”

The men spun, almost as if a command had been given, and two of them ran up the trail, toward the brightness I had seen there. I lowered the hammer on the pistol and shot a glance at Eric, who shrugged.

“I don’t like this,” Christine breathed into my ear.

Well, I didn’t like it either considering that everyone always seemed friendly until they decided you’d make the perfect sacrifice to their gods.

Huana hadn’t moved since the men had appeared. Eric stepped to her, bent and then lifted her so that she was standing. The fear was still evident on her face, but now there was curiosity too. The men were not the inhuman monsters she had expected. They looked and normal and acted normal.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Huana glanced at Eric and then back to me, as if trying to make up her mind. She allowed herself to be dragged along with us, trying to slow things down while she thought them over. Together, we followed the men.

And in minutes we were at the edge of the jungle. There was an open plain that gently sloped upward in front of us. About fifty or sixty feet away was a bamboo stockade, the bamboo lashed together. An open gate was directly in front of us, and through it, I could see thatched huts, some up on poles, several smokey fires, dogs on leashes, and several people, women and children, all walking or sitting in the village, waiting.

The two men who had gone on in front of us, waited at the gate. They stood on either side of it, like guards. We walked up the slope, along the dirt road that was rutted as if by the wheels of wagons. It was the first evidence I had seen that anyone around there had wheeled vehicles.

We entered the village a moment later and in seconds were surrounded by dozens of people. It wasn’t the dirty, native village I expected, but a neat little hamlet. Everyone was clean, there were paths laid out between the huts that looked like a planned grid and there were pens for the animals. There were no pools of standing water and no evidence of the stench that you’d expect from a native village. If the houses had been made of wood or stone and the paths paved, it would seem that this was a town on the American frontier, rather than a native village.

As we entered, the people swarmed out of their huts, dropped what they were doing, and ran toward us. They were all curious, shouting questions at us in their native tongue or in Spanish. There were gifts and shouts of encouragement. When they could free us from the press of people, we were lead to a long house in the center of the village and told that we could rest inside.

I climbed up the notched log and looked at the interior. It was certainly not as luxurious as the room in the palace, but it was splendid in its own way. The floor was wooden except for a blackened square of stone at the far end where fire wood stood. There were ragged rectangles cut in the thatch that were supposed to be windows. The overhang cut the amount of light that came in and since the sun didn’t move, the interior would never get any brighter.

There were six cots arranged around the room. These were bamboo affairs, lashed together and covered with straw. A pillow rested at the head of each cot. In the center of the rooms was a table with a gourd in the middle of it and fruit surrounding it.

It was obviously the best these people could do and given their village, it was more impressive than that provided for us in the city. And, more importantly, there were no locks on the doors, no bars on the windows, and no guards surrounding us.

I walked to the nearest cot and collapsed on it. I looked at Huana who stood stiffly in the middle of the room. “Well,” I said, “they don’t look like baby eaters to me.”

Eric laid back on a cot. He propped the heel of his left foot on the toes of his right and laced his fingers behind his head. “All in all,” he said, “I think we’re in good shape.”

Huana crossed over to him, leaned close and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Why?” he asked. “We can get a good night’s sleep, something that Dave and I haven’t had for quite a while. These people seem friendly enough.”

“But they eat babies,” she said, her voice quiet.

“That’s a load of crap,” he responded. “Propaganda to keep you people from fleeing into the jungle. The priests tell you that so you’ll be too frightened to try to escape.”

She turned and looked at me, as if asking for my help. I shook my head and said, “I’m resting here for a couple of days. Then we can get out. Christine?”

Christine looked apprehensive. She sat on the cot nearest to me, crossed her legs and leaned forward. For an instant it looked as if he was going to speak, but then decided against it.

Eric rolled to his side and patted Huana on the shoulder. “You need to relax. We are safe for the first time in days. These people are not going to kill us. They won’t sneak in here and cut our throats as we sleep.”

I glanced at him and wondered. They seemed to be quite uninterested in us now that we were inside the village. Of course, they could be the most accommodating people we had ever found. Realizing that we were tired after our ordeal in the jungle, they were giving us a chance to relax and rest.

Or, on a more horrible level, maybe because they knew we wouldn’t live long, they didn’t want to get to know us.

I suspected that they were just kind people, but I didn’t know. There were none of the trappings of cannibals around. There were no piles of human skulls and no shrunken heads, though a shrunken head didn’t really mean they were cannibals.

And, although their village was built of thatch, they seemed to have a fairly high level of civilization. They understood the need for cleanliness. Given all that, I was sure that we had little to fear while in the village. I rolled over to go to sleep, never realizing how wrong I was.