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.

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