SS senior field agent
Posted - 01/01/2012 : 16:34:19
| THE NIGHT OF THE EAGLE GOD
O dii immortales! ubinam gentium sumus?
[Ye immortal gods! where in the world are we?]
—In Catilinam (I, 4), Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero; 106-43 BC], Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator
“Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!”
Jim West knelt at the edge of the gorge, peering down at the man sprawled on his back on the narrow ledge about a dozen feet below. Thank the Lord the ledge stopped Artie’s fall, but now I’ve got to get him out of there. He climbed to his feet and looked around. No trees in this barren New Mexico canyon area. No rocks narrow enough and secure enough to use as an anchor. The only option was to fasten his rope to the saddle of one of the horses. Both animals were still unnerved, and he might not have time to calm them.
Leaning, Jim peered down over the side again. He had initially anxiously called his partner’s name, but quickly halted, realizing that if Artemus roused and moved before being aware of his precarious position, he could easily slip and plummet the remaining hundred feet or so to the canyon floor. That had been Jim’s first horrified certainty of what had happened immediately after the puma leapt toward them from the higher inside ledge, startling both horses as well as the riders.
Caught unawares, Artemus had been hurled out of the saddle, hitting the hard surface of the narrow path and tumbling over the edge, apparently unconscious from the initial impact. The relief Jim experienced when he spotted Artie resting on the ledge quickly gave way to the concern regarding the danger of his partner moving before he could be retrieved.
Jim went to the dancing black horse, speaking calmly, and stroking its sleek neck as he removed the rope from the saddle. Artemus’s white-faced mare was still edgy as well. Mesa was normally a very calm horse, rarely startled, but the appearance and attack by the big cat had been completely unexpected. The area between the wall of the cliff at one side and the canyon edge on the other was fairly narrow, and Artemus had been nearest the precipice.
I’ve got to get down to him before he wakes up. Biggest problem, other than how to secure the rope, was that the ledge holding Artie was extremely narrow, leaving almost no space for Jim to stand in order to heft the weight of his partner. He probably could not secure a rope around Artie before lifting him, and that was worrisome as well, especially if Artie awakened during the attempt and began moving before comprehending what was happening.
Jim had just started to loop the rope around Blackjack’s saddle when the horse snorted. Jim’s first thought was if another cat was in the vicinity. Then he heard a sound that caused him to look around: voices. He could only stare. They had not seen signs of another human for more than two days, and no tribes were known to reside in this remote and desolate area. Yet here he was facing a dozen or so Indians.
A dozen or so not very friendly Indians, if their glares were any indication. Jim instantly realized he had no idea what tribe these warriors belonged to. He had never seen similar garb… at least not on living Indians. Their clothing resembled drawings he had seen portraying now extinct Mexican tribes, like the Maya and Aztec. Every man held a spear at the ready.
Jim spoke calmly. “Hello. I’m not here to do any harm. I need help.” He pointed toward the ledge.
The men spoke among themselves, and their tongue was an unfamiliar one as well. Because of his interaction with various North American tribes, Jim knew a few words and phrases, and at least recognized certain portions of different tongues; enough to know which tribe it came from. But this patois was entirely different.
One man then separated from the group to move over to the edge and peer down. Jim saw how his body stiffened just before he spun around, eyes wide, whereupon he began to speak excitedly to the others, waving them to join him. More worked up than I would have expected after finding a man on a ledge like that, Jim mused. The husky, well-built man’s words and actions roused the others into movement, and one by one they looked down at Artemus, each then displaying the same exaggerated agitation.
“I need your help,” Jim began.
As though they had forgotten his presence, the warriors spun towards him, their spears lifted. Jim took a step back, and although he did not touch the pistol strapped to his hip, he kept his hand ready. He did not want to start shooting, but neither was he going to stand by to become a pincushion. Why were they again so hostile, when a moment ago they had appeared merely curious?
Their next move caught him completely off guard. One man hefted his spear, as though going to hurl it, and when Jim dodged to one side, away from the drop-off, two other men took advantage of his being momentarily off balance to jump him and disarm him. Once he was flat on the ground, others joined in. Too many for him to overcome, and within moments, he was on his knees, his wrists lashed behind his back, boots tied together, and a length of the same leather fastening his wrists to his ankles, in effect hog-tying him so that he could not get to his feet, let alone reach the blades secreted in his boot toe or coat collar. In any case, one man was positioned above him, spear poised to plunge into his body if he tried anything.
The man who had first gazed down over the cliff appeared to be the leader, and he started barking commands. At first Jim was horrified, fearful that they intended to go over the side to push Artemus off the ledge. His horror turned to bemusement when he began to realize they were extremely concerned about the stranded man’s safety. Several had what seemed to be a serious discussion regarding how to rescue him.
They finally landed on the plan that Jim would have executed if he had had some help. Two men were lowered over the side, with others holding the ropes at the top. This way, one could make sure Artie remained still while the other looped a rope around him. Despite his own situation, Jim West breathed a deep sigh of relief when he saw his partner’s still unconscious form rise over the top of the cliff. He also noticed how gently Artie was being handled.
They placed him on the level ground… and to a man, every Indian knelt and bowed his head. Jim stared. They were behaving as if Artemus Gordon was some sort of holy relic! As Jim watched, the leader finally rose and carefully, almost gingerly, touched Artie’s face and throat, then barked some commands. Immediately two men took off on the run.
“Thank you for rescuing my partner,” Jim began, planning to make an attempt to explain their identity and presence in this region. He halted his words as two men spun with spears at the ready. Why in the world am I the enemy, yet they seem to recognize Artemus as a friend? Especially without Artie having an opportunity to speak! To my knowledge, he has never been in this area before, anymore than I have.
Jim could see his partner’s chest rising and falling in deep even breaths, which was further relief. The dark bruise on Artie’s temple was probably what was causing him to remain unconscious. Hopefully that was all it was, a bruise, a slight concussion.
On their way to investigate a report that a man wanted by the federal government was in the Albuquerque area, the two agents had decided to take a shortcut through a region without railroad tracks, necessitating leaving their train to catch up with them later. They hoped to be able to sneak up on the wanted man. The approach of the special train might have been noticed.
Because neither was familiar with the region, with no map at hand, they had pretty much followed intuition and the sun and stars, heading south for the most part. Coming upon this area filled with canyons and cliffs had been somewhat unexpected, but they had plenty of water and other supplies, thus were not overly concerned.
Last night, while camping, they had heard the distant yowl of a mountain cat. While wary, they had not been particularly troubled, knowing that such creatures generally avoided humans as much as humans avoided them. That neither horse had sensed the presence of the cat that jumped them probably meant the cat had been downwind. When it leapt off the higher rocks toward them, men and animals had been unprepared. Jim had been able to get his pistol out and fire into the cat, which went over the cliff, but not before Artemus had been unhorsed to pitch over the edge himself.
Each time Jim attempted to speak to the Indians, he was threatened with the spears. That along with the rage and hatred he saw on the men’s dark faces caused him to fall silent. At least thus far they were safe. When Artemus woke up, perhaps his facility with languages would help them explain who they were. All I can do is wait and hope… hope Artie recovers, and hope they don’t decide to dispatch me before he has an opportunity to try to talk to them. Be interesting to find out to which tribe they belonged, not to mention where they lived in this godforsaken area.
Close to three quarters of an hour elapsed before the two men who had been sent away returned, bearing a litter of sorts. Jim watched as Artemus was carefully placed on the bed of what appeared to be woven leather, and then four men lifted it to start back down the trail. For one moment, Jim wondered if he was going to be left behind, but then the leader stepped over to slice the bonds that secured his wrists to his boots, and then the ones around his ankles. He was jerked to his feet, whereupon another loop was fastened around his neck. Thus leashed, he was forced to follow the group bearing the injured man. One Indian grasped the reins of the two horses to bring along, though none attempted to mount.
Perhaps because they were now bearing a burden, and carefully so, the trek consumed more than an hour. Jim was in the rear, save for the man leading the horses. Up ahead he could see the litter and its occupant, and he watched for movement from Artemus. That none was visible was somewhat worrisome. Artie had been unconscious for close to two hours. Perhaps the blow to the head had been more severe than suspected.
Jim also kept an eye out for signs of the settlement where these Indians lived. Were they a nomadic tribe who were currently residing among these canyons? He had heard stories of ancient settlements in this area, but none that indicated any extant tribes inhabited the region. The arid climate and lack of fertile ground would seem to militate against any successful existence here.
The trek wended along and through canyons and boulders, with rocky cliffs looming above them, sometimes throwing the group into deep shadow, after which the sunlight was all but blinding. Jim was able to keep up with the men ahead of him, though he certainly wished they would offer him some water, as well as have the ability to explain who they were and what was going on.
When he saw the rough wooden ladder extending up the cliff side ahead of them, Jim could not help but stare as he lifted his gaze to espy what appeared at first to be a shallow cave above them. One of the men bearing the litter yelled something, and almost instantly thirty or more dark faces peered down. Jim immediately realized that the cave was not nearly so shallow as appeared at first glance.
He saw the faces of men and women of all ages, as well as several children. An entire colony living in cliff dwellings? But who were they? The United States government, through the Indian Bureau, kept pretty good records on the populations of natives, including their location. As part of their own work, the two agents were generally apprised of this information. One reason they had decided on the shortcut was because they knew they would not encounter any hostile tribes; in fact, no Indians at all in this area. Who were these people?
Jim hoped they would release his wrists to enable him to climb the ladder, but that was not the case. The man holding his leash went up first; he was expected to follow, with another man right behind him, keeping a hand on his rump or back to steady him, while the rope tightened from above. By the time he gained the top, his neck was abraded and sore. He was then pushed to his knees and guarded by a spear-bearing man while others participated in lifting the litter to the top.
The behavior of the other residents was identical to that which had been displayed by the men who came upon Jim in the canyons. They chattered animatedly among themselves, peeking over the edge at the man on the rising litter. At least, Jim noted, the men below had tied some ropes around Artie so that he would not tip off if he should rouse during the process.
When the task was completed, another scene was repeated: everyone, men, women, and children, dropped to their knees, gaping at the unconscious man. What is it about Artie that’s causing this? Do they think he’s some long lost tribe member? Someone venerated, obviously. But who?
Only when he was taken in through a large opening did Jim West grasp what was occurring. He was so stunned he stopped short, causing the two men escorting him to grab his arms to propel him forward. Even then Jim could not take his eyes off the stone figure standing in a shallow recess in one wall of the cave, which he now realized was not so much a cave as having been hand-hewn out of the rock cliffs. Other doorways opened off the walls, leading into more rooms.
But the figure, a good eight to ten feet tall, was astounding. The man portrayed was muscular, and seemed to be attired in a combination of cloth and feathers, with stubby wings extending from each broad shoulder. The face was rather round and well featured… and a near duplicate of the features of one Artemus Gordon!
Jim was not given much time to examine the figure, which he suspected represented one of the tribe’s gods. His escorts pulled him through the room toward one of the many doorways, one that led into a narrow corridor illuminated by torches fastened to wall sconces. Jim wished he could ask questions, but knew it would be futile. They did not understand him anymore than he understood them.
After several dizzying turns through dim passageways, they shoved him into a small alcove dug into one side, then immediately fastened a “door” of thick strands of leather woven into a web over the door. Jim realized that he would be able to cut through the leather with one of his knives. They had taken his gun, but had not bothered to search him. Yeah, I can get out of this hole, but then what? At this point I’m not sure if I can find my way out. Plus I saw quite a few brawny men. Getting through them might be the real problem. Where have they taken Artie? What do they plan for him? What happens to a “god” in this tribe? Beyond that, how serious is his head wound?
Man always worships something; always he sees the Infinite shadowed forth in something finite; and indeed can and must so see it in any finite thing, once tempt him well to fix his eyes thereon.
— Essays—Goethe's Works, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Scottish satirical writer, essayist, historian & teacher
Artemus Gordon stared at the ceiling above him and puzzled. A rock ceiling—a ceiling carved out of rock. He could see the marks of tools, illuminated by torches placed in sconces on the surrounding walls. He lowered his gaze. A man was standing at the foot of his bed. A tall, muscular man, dark skinned, black hair flowing over his bare shoulders. Indian obviously. But what tribe? Artie did not recognize the coarse woven designs in the fabric of his loincloth, nor those etched into the silver of the bands he wore around his upper arms. That design appeared to be an abstract of some sort of bird, a hawk or eagle.
He started to raise his head, quickly fell back when his vision began to swim. The couch he was on, Artie realized, was cut out of the solid rock, covered with blankets and something else to create a mattress of sorts. Another blanket was on top of him. How the devil did I get here, and where the hell is ‘here’?
He forced his senses to behave, pushing himself up on his elbows. “Where’s my friend?”
The man stared at him silently for a long moment, then turned and departed through a door covered by fabric woven into the same pattern as the man’s clothing. Artie carefully threw back his covering and sat up, moving his legs over the side. His head was pounding, and upon touching it with his fingers, he found a large knot on his temple. What happened?
He remembered bits and pieces. Riding slowly along the path alongside Jim as they made their way toward Albuquerque through the stark and barren canyon country. The suddenness of the attack by the big cat… Artie recalled the shriek of the puma; the terrified cry of his horse… nothing more. What happened to Jim? Had he been injured… or worse… by the animal? Who was the Indian, and where was this cave located?
Artie had just made up his mind to try to stand up when the door curtain moved again. A young woman entered. She stopped, and seemed to be paralyzed momentarily with something akin to terror or awe. She was, he guessed, in her early twenties, entirely lovely, with shining black hair that flowed over her shoulders. Her garb, a loose dress that barely reached her knees, was constructed of that same crude fabric bearing similar symbols as on the man’s clothing and the blanket and curtain.
“Hello,” he said, smiling, in an attempt to put her at ease.
Instead her eyes widened further, and she sank swiftly to her knees, bowing her head, saying a word he did not quite catch, except that it sounded similar to his own name. Had Jim told her? Did that mean Jim West was alive and safe? Where was he?
“What is your name?” Artie asked gently.
Her dark eyes darted up for an instant. He had not expected her to understand his words, but hoped his expression and tone would put her at ease. She was not bearing any food or drink nor anything else, so he was unsure why she had been sent in by, he presumed, the tall man who had been present when he awakened.
“Lunata, my lord,” she replied in a barely audible voice.
“You speak English?” Artemus could not suppress his astonishment. “What is this place? Where is my friend?” Only after his outburst did he realize how she had addressed him. “My lord.”
“Lunata talk little white man talk,” she said, face and eyes still downcast. “Lunata come to serve the lord.”
Artie quelled his impatience and retained a gentle tone. “Lunata, please stand and look at me. That is how you can serve me. Answer my questions please.”
The fear was still in the shining eyes, but she obeyed, rising and clutching her slender hands together at her waist. “Yes, lord.”
He wanted to know the reason for the deference and the title, but more important answers were needed. “I was with another man. Do you know where he is? Is he safe?”
“Evil man is…” She frowned and seemed to be searching for words. “Napota say, put evil man in dark hole then we make him pay for harming our lord Armahiga.”
“Evil man?” Artie echoed. “What… what does the evil man look like?”
She frowned slightly then lifted a hand to place her finger just below one eye. “Eyes like leaf by water.”
Green eyes. That sounded right. “Why do you say he is an evil man?” Had Jim been forced to put up a fight against her tribesmen?
Again the dark eyes widened. “Napota see evil man throw Armahiga over… over rocks.”
Now Artemus was truly astonished. “Who is Napota?”
“Son of chief. Maybe chief.”
The way she spoke, the expression on her face, gave Artie reason to believe that this Napota’s word was not to be doubted. I’ve got to learn more. Wish my head were clearer.
“Lunata, can you bring me some water?”
“Yes, lord!” She started to spin away, caught herself, bowed slightly toward him then fled through the curtained doorway.
Wearier than he would have imagined after those few minutes of sitting up, Artemus lay back down. He would like to get up and explore his surroundings, try to find Jim in whatever “hole” he had been placed in, but knew he needed to regain some strength first, and importantly clear his head.
Why would this Napota, who she said was the chief’s son and heir, say that he saw Jim push me over the cliff? Why did Lunata address me as “Armahiga”? That was the name he heard her murmur when she first entered, he was certain. And above all, why in the world was she bowing and scraping and addressing him as “lord”?
Jim West sat against the wall in the back of the small cavern that was his prison, arms clasped around his knees as he waited and listened. Twice a man had come to look through the leather web, but neither man had spoken, nor had they offered him food or water. Jim had used his knife on some of the strands of the leather straps covering the door. The straps were woven together from other heavily braided and twisted strands so that they became close to an inch in diameter. He had been careful not to cut all the way through, and to disguise the cuts as much as possible. He felt that if necessary, the weight of his body against them would pull the woven leather ropes apart.
But he was not quite ready for that. Some sort of misunderstanding was occurring here, and if he made an escape attempt, things could get worse. He was badly outnumbered, plus he did not know his partner’s fate. He had a sense from the route taken to reach this cell that these cliff dwellings were a veritable catacomb, a maze of tunnels and rooms. Where Artie was being held was anyone’s guess, and without that knowledge, he could waste precious time, perhaps endanger them both more than they were now. If indeed Artemus had been “recognized” as one of their deities, chances were good that he was being cared for.
Occasionally he heard distant voices, even movement, but except for the two men who had checked on him, he saw no one. Now as he waited quietly, he did hear more footsteps that seemed to be coming closer. A torch was burning in sconce some yards down the passageway, but he discerned a brighter light approaching, indicating these people were carrying their own torch. More than one person, for he heard a murmur of voices. A woman’s voice? As the approaching persons neared, he climbed to his feet, the knife that had been in his coat collar secreted in the palm of his hand.
A man appeared first, and Jim recognized him as the one who had been giving orders out on the trail. Then another man, who bore a great resemblance to the first, but was perhaps ten years younger. Finally, a young woman appeared, with hair that gleamed like a raven’s wing in the glow of the flickering torch. The trio paused on the other side of the leather web and held a conversation in their own language, looking in at him. Especially the young woman looked at him.
Jim West was not unaware of the influence his appearance had on women of all ages. Upon occasion, he had used that influence to his advantage when working on a case. He knew the power of a smile, and he smiled toward the woman. She quickly pulled her gaze away then the dark eyes peeked back at him a moment later.
Both men noticed the exchange, and the older one spoke sharply, eyes burning with anger. The younger man only frowned, remaining silent. The girl nodded in humble compliance to whatever she had been told, and turned to face Jim through the screen. “Evil one, why did you try to kill Armahiga?”
Surprised that she spoke English, as well as with the question itself, Jim took a couple of steps toward the opening, but seeing how both men tensed, the older one putting a hand on the hilt of the knife attached to the waist of his breechclout, he paused. “I did not try to kill anyone. Who is Armahiga?”
“The holy one: The Eagle God. Napota saw you. Napota does not lie.”
The older man caught the mention of his name, even if he did not understand what she was saying, and glared toward the prisoner. Is that it? They think Artie is a reincarnation of their god, an Eagle God? That makes sense, particularly because Artie resembles that statue, and would explain their reverential treatment of him, for sure. But why do they think I tried to harm him? Why would this Napota tell such a tale? The other men who had been with him certainly knew the truth of the matter.
“Perhaps,” Jim said slowly, “Napota misunderstood what he saw. The man who fell over the edge is my friend, my brother. Is he well?”
The young woman hesitated, flicking a glance toward the elder man. “Armahiga is well. He slept, but he awakes.”
“Can I see him?”
She remained silent for a long moment, gazing at the prisoner, then looked at the younger man before addressing Napota in her native tongue. Napota’s eyes narrowed, then he shook his head fiercely, point a hand through the netting toward Jim as he rattled off some words that were easily comprehended as an angry threat.
Still, Jim asked, “What did he say?”
“He say you will see Eagle God when Eagle God hurls you from the highest cliff.”
Tit for tat, Jim mused. He decided to change the subject. “What about some food and water? Napota wants me alive so Armahiga can kill me, doesn’t he?”
She posed the query, and at first Napota obviously adamantly refused the request. The younger man spoke for the first time, and though his words and voice were more moderate in tone, he seemed to speak with some authority. At least Napota listened, if not very happily, finally shrugging his shoulders slightly. At that, with a final glare toward the prisoner, Napota stalked away, the younger following.
The woman paused. “I bring food. You wait.”
Jim almost laughed as she disappeared. What else did she expect him to do? None of them, fortunately, had tugged on the leather curtain. Jim thought a strong pull would be needed to separate the remaining strands. He hoped that the woman would return alone, and he got his wish about twenty minutes later.
She carried a clay bowl filled with some sort of cornmeal dish, along with a similar cup of cold, fresh water that she slipped through a small opening at the bottom of the leather web. He consumed that first, before accepting the bowl with its flat stone “spoon” through the web. “Where are our horses? Are they being cared for?”
“Yes. We no have horses, but had many, long ago. Napota, he say shiny horse him. Fine horse for chief.”
The porridge was not bad, flavored with some sort of spices or chili, even a tad on the hot side. I might wish I had some of that water left! “So Napota is the chief?”
She hesitated. “He chief son. Chief Radina very sick. Napota, he is first son. Amanito, he second son.”
“Amanito. He was the other one here?” She nodded. Jim had not missed the softening in her eyes as she mentioned the younger man’s name. “Is he your… intended?”
Her eyes dropped. “No. I will be wife of Armahiga.”
Jim West was glad he had not been in the midst of swallowing food with that statement, for he realized he might have choked. Instead, he asked quietly, “Is that what you wish to do?”
The dark eyes lifted. “I am to be wife of Armahiga from time I am born. The stars say so. Now he has come, I will marry him and we be man and woman together.”
But it’s sure as hell not what you want to do! “What’s your name?”
“How is it you speak English?”
A shy smile touched her mouth. “My father, he boy, run away. Live with white man many years, learn to talk. He come back, take woman for wife. Teach me white man’s words.”
“Is your father still here?”
“He die many years ago.”
Jim scraped out the last of the porridge. “What’s the name of this place?”
She evinced surprise. “It is our home.”
“What is your tribe’s name,” he rephrased.
“Tatuma. We are the Tatuma people. We live here many, many, many years. We live here when Spanish come, but they no find us. We hide.”
No one else found them either, apparently. When Lunata reached through the web, Jim passed her the bowl, asking if she would bring him more water. She agreed, and he made one more request. “When you talk to… Armahiga… tell him I am well. Tell him… he must ask to see me.”
“Oh. He say that. Napota say no. Like he say to you, Armahiga sacred. Can no talk to people. Just special people. Like chief.”
“And his intended,” Jim smiled. He saw the flicker of shadows on her face as she turned and scurried away.
With a heavy sigh, Jim West settled back against the wall again. He could break out of here. Quite possibly his fighting skills, along with the knife, would allow him to reach Artie. But he did not yet know his partner’s condition for certain. If Artie was still laid low by the blow to his head, with a bad concussion, getting him out against a few dozen strong men would not be easy, and maybe not possible.
I think I’m going to have to wait it out. Artie has portrayed many different roles in the past. Being a god will be new to him, but if I know my partner, he’ll carry it off. I’m going to have to trust him for the time being at least so long as I know he’s alive.
Artie tried to convince the frail, white-haired old man to sit down, but Chief Radina would have none of that. Through Lunata he stated he could not sit in the presence of the Eagle God. When Artemus attempted to explain his own identity and that he was not a god, Lunata refused to even translate his sentences.
“You will frighten Radina,” she stated. Artie had tried earlier, when she brought him food, to get her to explain why the tribe thought he was some sort of holy figure. Lunata was astounded that he would even ask. “All know,” she said flatly. “All see.”
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation thus far was that he, as the Eagle God Armahiga, was expected to wed Lunata. When Radina, through the young woman, had pronounced that, Artie had been stunned, but not too stunned to notice the reactions of the two younger men who had escorted the chief into the “god’s chambers” and still supported him by grasping his arms.
The elder, Napota, had glowered, but the younger, Amanito, closed his eyes momentarily, as if in pain. Plainly the sons of the chief coveted the beautiful maiden for themselves, but Artie suspected each man’s feelings toward Lunata were different.
“I wish to see the evil one,” Artie said, putting some authority in his tone. “Bring him to me.”
“You must not see him,” Lunata cried, not attempting to translate. “You cannot see him until the day you put him to death.”
Artemus Gordon swallowed hard in an attempt to prevent his expression from altering, working to retain the stern visage he had assumed. “I will see him. Armahiga commands. Bring him to me.”
Lunata nervously repeated his words in her own language. Immediately the two brothers began talking at once. Artie could not tell if both were protesting his command, or both were agreeing, or one of each. In any case, they were agitated, and so was their father. Radina finally got their attention and talked rapidly.
Artie had been listening carefully to their language, and was beginning to recognize some similarities to other Indian tongues he had heard. Though he spoke several European languages fluently, he had never had opportunity to master much of the various Native American dialects, usually just enough to get by. Cheyenne was the language he knew best, primarily through their friendship with the shaman, American Knife. The Tatuma language bore some resemblance to Navajo, but he thought he heard nuances of tribes further south, in Mexico. Even Aztec.
Finally Lunata relayed the chief’s response. He was dead set against the evil one being in the presence of the great Eagle God before the moment of execution. He feared that the evil one might hold some power over Armahiga, as he claimed was suggested in one of their legends. However, Radina felt he had to obey the god. He would ask the tribe’s shaman to attempt to exert some control over the evil one, to suppress some of the powers the green-eyed man might possess.
Artie did not necessarily like the sound of that, but did not protest. Jim would not be affected by any gourd rattling and incantations, so the two agents could at least converse. As the interview ended, Artie asked Lunata to bring him more water. The earlier meal and a short, unintended nap had him feeling better. At least his headache was down to a dull throb and his thoughts were clearer. He just had to be careful not to make any sudden movements.
When the young woman returned with a clay ewer of water, Artie engaged her in conversation. He had previously learned about her father’s experience in the outer world, which explained her knowledge of the language. Now he wanted to try to learn a little more about the political situation among the cliff dwellers, as well as about this business of Lunata being promised to the Eagle God.
She explained in her halting English that being the elder did not necessarily guarantee that Napota would assume the mantle of leadership upon his father’s death, but presently he was the stronger of the two sons. In a roundabout way, she revealed that Amanito was held in more favor by the inhabitants of the pueblo, but just about everyone accepted that when Radina died, Napota would take over primarily, it appeared, because the people feared his ruthlessness if he was unsuccessful.
That must have something to do with his claiming that he saw Jim hurl me over the cliff! I am the great Eagle God, he wants me on his side, and he wants the people to comprehend that I am in Napota’s debt. Executing the “evil one” will help seal the deal.
“What about your marriage to me… to the Eagle God? Is that what you want?”
“It is what must be,” the girl said sadly. “I am born, the magic ones say, this one will be the woman of the great one. Then some, they say, the great one is Armahiga. They tell that I must go to Armahiga. Then you come, so I will live.”
Artie frowned. “You’re saying that if… Armahiga had not appeared, you would have been sacrificed?”
Her chin came up. “It is the way. Armahiga is the greatest of gods. He must be happy. I will gladly be your wife, Armahiga. Only great chief can change the way.”
He chewed his lip a moment. That must mean that if Napota became chief, he could supersede the god. “Suppose you had a choice. Who would you marry?”
Suddenly tears poured from her eyes. “It does not matter. I will be the wife of Armahiga. I am honored to be your wife, great one.”
Artie decided to change the subject, knowing it would not be a good thing for her to leave the room in tears or with red eyes. “When will the evil one be brought to me?”
Lunata shook her head. “The magic one will work a spell. Maybe before moon rise. Maybe after sun rise.”
That was about all he could extract from her, so he sent her away, laying back down after taking a long drink of water. What would happen if I got up and started wandering around? Would they stop me? Would they dare stop the Eagle God?
He was still baffled as to why they thought he was this Eagle God. His queries continued to be met by astonished, “It is so. Everyone knows it is so,” from Lunata. Why did they know it was so? What was the clue? The fact that he had not fallen all the way to the cliff bottom and died? Lunata said she understood he was found on a ledge below the lip of the cliff. Likely Jim had been preparing to haul him up, and had willingly accepted the help of the Tatuma men when they appeared… before they accused him of attempted murder!
The fortuitous ledge that halted his fall did not seem to him to be a sufficient reason for them to decide he was the reincarnation of this god. They had lived in this region all their lives; their tribe for centuries, apparently. Surely they had seen or heard of an incident like that previously.
I do need to see more of this place, get a sense of the layout and the people. But I’d better not rock the boat just yet. For one thing, I’m not sure how far I could get without my knees buckling. As well, I don’t want to shake things up before I get the opportunity to speak to Jim. I need to make sure he is all right, and maybe get an opportunity to exchange some ideas about how to get out of this fix!
Within about ten minutes of having eaten, Jim knew he had been drugged. The spiced porridge had not tasted any differently than the previous bowl, and the water had been pure and cold. But suddenly his body refused to move away from the solid rock wall where he had been sitting. Some kind of herbal concoction, he reasoned. Though he did not lose consciousness or the ability to think, he could not make his limbs obey his commands. When he attempted to speak, to call out, his tongue did not want to work either, and the only sound he could make was a murmur.
Thus when two sturdy men appeared and shoved the woven door aside, Jim could do nothing but allow them to grasp his arms and drag him down the torch-lit corridor. Was this it? Was this how they executed intruders, rendering them helpless first, and then throwing them over a cliff? No, wait. They said the god would throw me over the cliff. Artie wouldn’t… Unless a different drug had been used on him, causing him to obey certain commands.
Jim experienced only mild relief when they reached the large anteroom where the idol was located when they did not drag him toward the outer door. He could see through the opening that nighttime had fallen. Instead he was taken down another corridor, and yet another and another. Even if I had all my senses intact, I’m not sure I could duplicate this route.
All of Artemus Gordon’s willpower was required to prevent him from leaping off the stone bed when he saw his partner hauled into the room and dropped unceremoniously to the floor. He had wondered why the chief’s sons had entered a few minutes earlier, positioning themselves on either side of the entrance, arms folded on their chests, faces stern—especially Napota.
“What is this?” he demanded angrily. Why isn’t Lunata here to translate?
When no response was forthcoming, Artemus carefully slipped off the bed and stood alongside it. “Jim?” That his partner did not move was unsettling. Casually, as though merely surveying the situation, Artie took a few paces so that he could see Jim’s face, experiencing tremendous relief to see the green eyes open and apparently alert.
With both the brothers and the two guards standing by, Artie spoke in an even tone. “Jim, can you hear me? Blink twice for yes, once for no.” Two blinks and further relief flooded Artie’s soul. “Did they do something to you? Drug?” Two blinks. “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but for some reason they think I’m a god and you are the enemy. I suspect politics are involved. We need to talk, but obviously now is not the time.”
Jim blinked twice, cursing silently in frustration. Politics is putting it mildly. I think we’re in the middle of a nasty situation, and may not have much to say about our fate.
Napota said something then, and the two men who had brought Jim moved toward him. Artemus quickly held out a hand in a stop gesture and both halted, looking from the chief’s son to the “god” in some confusion. Who should they obey?
“It’s obvious they don’t want us to get together, Jim,” Artie continued in that same conversational tone. “But I’ll try to use my newly found authority to correct that.”
Napota spoke again, his voice harsh, and this time the guards jumped forward, grabbing Jim off the floor and hustling him out of the room. Artemus glared at Napota and had the satisfaction to see the elder son flinch slightly. Artie had gotten the impression that perhaps Napota was not as gullible as the others when believing that the injured man they found was the reincarnation of a fabled warrior-god. Maybe I need to convince him that it’s so.
About five minutes later, Napota returned, accompanied by a man Artie had not seen before. To his astonishment, this man also spoke English. The meeting did not last long. Napota spoke swiftly and volubly while his companion translated, ignoring Artemus's attempts to find out who he was and why he knew the language. He was around Napota’s age, mid thirties, a handsome man with a slim build. Though no introductions were made, certain aspects of his garb caused Artemus to speculate that he was some sort of shaman. For one thing, he wore a colorful stone necklace that he continually fondled as if for protection. Artie had not seen any other man wear a similar adornment.
The gist of the conversation was simple: Napota expected the newly found Eagle God to be grateful for his rescue and be a friend to Napota in all things. Artemus asked what “all things” meant, but the query was ignored, as was the question regarding why the Tatuma people believed he was this god. Napota said that Armahiga would be told when to act and what to do, a statement that made the translator very nervous. Artemus suspected that even if Napota were aware that the man they found was mortal, the other man was not so sure, and was extremely agitated that Napota would be speaking to the god in this manner. Possibly he feared the god would misunderstand and blame him for the high-handedness.
When the pair left, Artemus sat down and pondered it. Political had probably been the right word. He truly needed to learn more about the situation here, before something really bad happened; something that might bring harm to one or both of the outsiders.
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
SS senior field agent
Posted - 01/01/2012 : 16:35:02
Jim was relieved to realize, when he awoke, that the effects of the drug had dissipated completely. He had fallen asleep on the stone floor after being deposited there by the two men. Unable to move, he had simply drifted off. Or, he realized as he sat up and stretched his stiff muscles, a residual effect of the concoction had perhaps caused the sleep.
At least I saw Artie and he saw me. He has a good idea of what’s going on. Probably he has been told about the upcoming party where he gets to kill me.
Jim climbed stiffly to his feet and flexed his body further. The floor was no featherbed. A cup of coffee would be welcome about now. Then he frowned. How could he trust his food now? The possibility of being drugged had been the farthest thing from his mind. If the same potion, or something similar, was used again, he would be helpless when the retribution ceremony was carried out, and likely Artie would be next to powerless himself, surrounded by the tribe. Hell, they might dope him up too! That would not be unheard of in such situations, especially if Napota or someone else wanted to be sure that the “god” acted in a manner favorable to his side.
Hearing a sound, Jim tensed. A moment later Lunata appeared with a bowl and cup. She offered them toward him through the web. Jim shook his head. “The last food you gave me was not good.”
Her eyes dropped a moment. “I did not know. Titaca did not tell me.”
“Who is Titaca?”
“My elder brother. The magic one.”
Shaman. Witch doctor. “Does he also speak English?”
“He know it, but no speak much. Please take food. It not—not sick.”
“Are you sure?”
“Lunata take it from… from big bowl.” She made a gesture with the cup as though dipping it and pouring into the bowl.
Jim accepted it then, certain that she meant she had taken it from the communal pot. “The other food—Titaca brought it to you?”
“Yes. I come to fire, he say, take this to evil one with grass eyes. I not know it bad.”
“All right. Thank you. No real harm done. Will you take a message for me to Armahiga?”
A trace of fear flickered in her dark eyes, but she nodded. “I try.”
“Tell him to be careful what he eats.”
Those eyes widened. “No harm come to Armahiga! He is god!”
“I know. But please. Just tell him. I know you don’t understand this, but he is my very good friend. I did not throw him over the cliff. He fell when a cougar—a big cat—startled our horses.”
Lunata listened, frowning. Had Artemus also told her this story? I wonder if Artie has seen the statue yet. Hope it doesn’t go to his head!
As the skull of the man grows broader, so do his creeds.
And his gods they are shaped in his image and mirror his needs.
And he clothes them with thunders and beauty,
He clothes them with music and fire,
Seeing not, as he bows by their altars,
That he worships his own desire.
—The God-Maker, Man, Donald Marquis (D.R.P. Marquis; “Don Marquis”; 1878-1937), American journalist, poet, dramatist and humorist
Artemus Gordon stared in open astonishment at the figure in the niche in the wall. So that’s it! Unbelievable! No wonder these people are in awe of me. He glanced around at the tribal members who had followed him—and Amanito—as he was given a tour of the cliff-side dwelling. They were all watching him, and obviously comparing his features with those on the carving. The features were not exact, but extremely similar. Almost as though I posed for it!
He had carefully questioned Lunata when she brought his food this morning about the god Armahiga. He tried to make his questions sound as though he was testing her knowledge of tribal lore, not probing for information. She had narrated the story of a young man who saved the life of a chief’s daughter by leaping upon two enemies who were trying to kidnap her, with all three being carried to their deaths when they went over a cliff.
According to the legend, Armahiga reappeared later, flying up from the depths with eagle wings on his shoulders and after pledging that he would look after and protect the tribe forever, he also said he would return one day to claim a bride to take to the heavens with him as recompense for the maiden he saved, who might have been his wife if he had lived. Also, significantly, an “evil one” who was jealous of Armahiga was known to pursue him to try to kill him. That part of the legend had come in handy, Artie reasoned, when Napota needed to explain Jim’s role in the incident.
Her own brother, Lunata stated, had been the one who revealed that she was born to be Armahiga’s bride. When Artemus asked, she said that her brother, Titaca, was the shaman of the tribe, the keeper of the lore as well as the medicinal expert; Artie realized he was the man who had come with Napota to act as translator. Then Lunata passed along the message from “the evil one.”
Jim was drugged. That’s not good. He has to eat, and so do I. If Jim didn’t notice anything amiss in the food served him…
A while later, Amanito and the man Lunata introduced as her brother, Titaca, came to take the “god” on a tour. As Artie had anticipated, he was indeed the man who had earlier acted as Napota’s translator in the god’s quarters, and seeing them side-by-side, Artie noticed the resemblance to his lovely sister. Titaca was probably a dozen years older than Lunata.
“Lunata,” Artie asked. “What sign was given to indicate that you were Armahiga’s… my… chosen bride?”
“I do not know. The old magic one, the one who taught Titaca, he told of it at my birth.”
“Does Titaca know?”
Her head dropped. “I dare not ask.”
Artie glanced at the shaman who appeared to be pretending he did not hear or understand the conversation. Perhaps he did not want the tribe at large to know he spoke English. Something in Amanito’s stance suggested he might have grasped at least part of what was said as well. Artie’s gaze returned to the astonishing stone figure, then looked at the woman again. “How long has this statue been here?”
She spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “Since the beginning of time. It is said that one who was in the world when Armahiga… when you saved the chief’s daughter… created the likeness.”
Artemus sighed. He hated to think of these people as ignorant superstitious savages, but at the moment he could not come up with another description. Of course, the incredible likeness was difficult to overlook. They had seen this idol every day of their lives, perhaps worshipped before it. To have an outsider with the same features suddenly arrive in their midst…
If only it had been under different circumstances. If only that mountain lion had not chosen to appear at that moment. If he and Jim could have arrived together, displaying their friendship… It’s still hard to figure out why Napota insists on the lie that he saw Jim push me over the side. Other men must be under his sway, fearful of telling the truth. Or perhaps they are in his political camp, promised special benefits once Napota assumes the chief’s mantle. Still, it appears that Napota has that locked up. Why would he need to create a situation to bolster his chances?
Napota spoke sharply then, and Lunata turned to Artemus. “Napota say you must go back now. Amanito and Lunata take you.” This time she bowed from the waist toward the great living god.
“Very well,” Artie murmured and allowed the pair to lead the way out of the antechamber. I could have spoken up and reminded Napota that I am a god and a mere mortal can’t boss me around. But I think I’ll try to use this act of compliance to my advantage.
As soon as they were in the passageway, he said, “I want to visit the evil one.”
If he had needed any proof that Amanito understood English, this was it. Both he and Lunata stopped short and turned to him. “That is forbidden!” Lunata cried.
Artie leveled a stern gaze in her direction. “Who dares forbid the god Armahiga?”
Amanito said something to her in their native tongue. Lunata looked at the young man for a long moment, then back to Artemus. “Yes, my lord.”
Artemus was glad he had the guides, realizing he could well have become lost in the twisting, turning passages. He saw doors that opened into cells of various sizes, but all appeared to be unoccupied. Were they once homes to members of the tribe? Finally, down a shorter corridor, they came to the door covered with the knotted web.
Jim was seated with his back to the far wall. He had removed his jacket and was using it as something of a pillow behind his head. As did Artemus, he needed a shave. He did not move as the trio appeared. Lunata was alarmed.
“You must kneel in the presence of the god Armahiga!”
Artemus quickly soothed her. “He is unaccustomed to the ways of the Tatuma, Lunata. You and Amanito go back and wait for me in the next passage. I wish to speak to the evil one alone.”
Again, both of his escorts were distressed, but this time they did not argue. Artemus waited until they had stepped out of sight before he spoke quietly. “Well, James. I’m surprised you are sitting idly by.”
Jim climbed to his feet and without words showed his partner the slits he had cut in the leather web. “For an emergency,” he said in an equally soft voice. He knew that some sounds could carry in the corridors. “What’s going on?”
“First, how are you? Any more extra spices in your food?”
“Not so far. Artie, did you see the statue?”
“I did, just a few minutes ago. It’s amazing. I can see why the big mix up. Although they don’t seem bothered by the fact that one of their gods does not speak their language! Napota must have explained that away somehow.”
“How do you like being a god?”
Artemus grimaced. “Not much. I really had to assert my authority to simply visit you. Were you able to comprehend what I said when they brought you into my quarters?”
“Yeah. I could hear and understand, just couldn’t move or speak. I don't know what was in my food, but it was powerful, worthy of one of Loveless’s concoctions. Artie, are you aware that you’re supposed to toss me over the cliff in retribution for my supposedly pushing you over that ledge?”
“Yep. I suspect it’s going to be done symbolically. I raise my hand and a couple of the big bruisers throw you over.”
“That’s a comfort.”
“Jim, this morning I wrangled some information from Lunata about the situation here. For one thing, although he’s the elder son, Napota is not a lock to inherit his father’s title as chief. Seems that if he were the only son, he would be a shoo-in. Because two sons were born the tribe gets to choose between them… and Amanito is much more popular, even though the people fear Napota. Then Napota came to see me to let me know I’m expected to show my gratitude by backing him.”
“So instead of trying to make himself more popular, Napota is staging this stunt. What surprises me is that the men that were with him out there on the trail are going along with it.”
“I know. I’m not sure why, whether due to threats, bribes or pure friendship. I’ve tried to tell Lunata what happened, but even as a god, my version is not being accepted. Even old Radina prefers Napota’s version. Perhaps it’s due to my incredible similarity to that statue.”
“You haven’t sprouted wings.” Jim’s grin was wry.
“Not yet. Thing is, if I protesteth too much, they might start believing me and we’ll both need wings.”
“If it comes to that, Artemus,” Jim said grimly, “you keep your godlike demeanor and let them toss me.”
“Like hell!” his partner growled. “Jim, we need to get out of here.”
“I’m for that. But I can think of a few problems, one being we have no idea where they’ve stashed the guns and horses. This place is a maze.”
“You’re telling me! Lunata claims she doesn’t know where our possessions are, though the horses are being cared for. One thing I’ve discovered is that two others at least know some English, Amanito and Lunata’s brother, the shaman, Titaca. Titaca is apparently in Napota’s camp, willingly or not, but Amanito might be of some assistance.” Artemus glanced down the passageway and saw the silhouette of a head peeking around the corner. “I think they are getting nervous, and I don’t want to get them into trouble. Behave yourself.”
“Sure. If I don’t go nuts here in solitary confinement.”
“I’ll see if I can order up some dancing girls to entertain you.” With a wave, Artie strode down the passage and united with a pair of relieved young Tatumas, though he also had the impression they had not entirely minded a few minutes alone together. He allowed them to guide him back to his own quarters. He tried very hard to keep track of the turns in and out of the various passages, but he was unsure that one trek was going to be enough to learn his way through the warren of tunnels.
Napota and Titaca were in the god’s chambers when the trio reached it. Artie did not miss how Napota’s bows were not quite as deep and subservient as others he had received. He also noticed that when Napota spoke briefly, both Lunata and Amanito displayed some dismay. Titaca spoke sharply to his sister when she appeared to be reluctant to translate the words to Armahiga.
“My lord,” Lunata said then, bowing her head and not meeting Artemus's gaze, “I am to tell you that the ceremony take place one more sun, when the night sun very bright.”
Artie retained his composure, despite a small wash of panic he experienced. Tomorrow night! Time is running out. “I wish to say,” he spoke solemnly, “that a great mistake is being made. The one that is called evil is not evil. He is my friend, my brother. He would never hurt me. Whatever Napota saw, he was mistaken. His eyes deceived him.” Again no doubt remained that Amanito also comprehended most of what he said. Amanito turned wide, questioning eyes to his brother, as Titaca’s mouth tightened.
Lunata translated, whereupon Napota spat out some angry words, then seemed to catch himself and continued in a calmer vein. Resignation was on Lunata’s pretty face as she turned back to the god. “My lord, Napota swears an oath that he saw the evil one throw you over the cliff. He must pay, and must die by your hands.”
Realizing that he was not going to get anywhere just now, Artie waved a dismissive hand, turning to sit on his bench, not looking at any of the people in the room. He heard a rapid conversation among the three men, and if tones of voice meant anything, Amanito was pleading for something even as Napota was being obdurate, while Titaca seemed to be trying to mediate.
If that’s true, Artie mused when the party left the room, maybe I’m wrong about Titaca being entirely in Napota’s camp. Perhaps, just perhaps, my resemblance to the figure has him believing as most of the others apparently do, that I am the reincarnation of Armahiga, and not just part of Napota’s plotting. Is there a way I can use that to our advantage?
Artemus knew he had to get word to Jim about the upcoming schedule. Chances were very good that the prisoner would be drugged so as to assure no resistance to the execution. Jim needed to be especially cautious about his food, even if it meant going hungry for a while. As he thought about the upcoming ceremony, an idea occurred.
When Lunata brought a fresh ewer of water to him awhile later, she was more than a little startled by the request he made, but promised to ask Napota if it was possible. Artie shook his head firmly and reiterated. “I want to talk to the chief. Chief Radina.”
“He is very ill…”
“Then take me to see him.”
Once again Lunata was overtly torn between obeying the god and other instructions she may have received from Napota or perhaps her brother. But after a moment, she nodded and headed for the door. Artemus followed. “Please tell me, Lunata, if you had a choice, who would you prefer to marry?”
She barely glanced at him but he saw the bitterness in her dark eyes. “I will marry Armahiga, as the signs foretold.”
“But supposing the signs had not appeared and you had free will. Who would be your choice? Napota?”
He threw the name out for effect, and succeeded. Now her eyes flashed, her pretty mouth curved in a sneer. “No woman want to marry Napota!”
Artie forbore from asking why. “Then who would you prefer? You can tell me, Lunata. I will keep your secrets.”
Those terribly expressive eyes shot his way again, and now he saw the sparkle of tears. “Amanito.”
He followed her around a corner and into the broadest corridor he had seen yet. Through the open doorways as they walked by he saw people, mostly women and children. This was their main residence area. Had they once occupied the entire maze? Did that mean that their population was diminishing? It occurred to him to wonder, not for the first time, why they secreted themselves from civilization.
At the very end of the corridor was a wide door, and Lunata paused at that door. After a moment, a heavy-set woman with gray hair trailing over her shoulders appeared. She stared in awe at the man behind the maiden as Lunata apparently spoke of the god’s wishes. So much in awe that Lunata appeared to have to repeat her words before the woman hurried away, returning a minute or so later, bowing deeply and gesturing for them to enter.
Lunata led Artemus into a further inner chamber, a room decorated with colorful tapestries along with small figurines, one of which Artie recognized as a miniature of the large statue out in the anteroom. Radina was reclining on a couch and he held out a pleading hand, speaking haltingly. Lunata translated that Radina was profusely apologizing for being unable to rise to honor the god.
Artie quickly asked Lunata to tell the old man not to worry, and then he pressed the young woman to be sure to translate what Radina said as exactly as she could, as well as his own words. “Ask him if he favors one son over the other to succeed him. And tell him Armahiga wants the truth.”
He was pretty sure Lunata did not fudge the translation, for the old man’s eyes widened with shock. He hesitated then spoke firmly. Artie did not need the translation Lunata provided, as he heard the name Amanito plainly. Lunata translated that Napota was the son of Radina’s first wife, and had resented that Radina took another wife after the first one died. He was always a difficult son, forever attempting to circumvent his father’s dominion. Radina did not believe Napota could be a good chief, and he wished that Amanito could inherit the role.
When Artemus posed the next question, Radina shook his head sadly. He feared the power of Napota. Certain men of the tribe were willing to follow him. Radina could not openly back Amanito, lest Napota slay his own brother in his quest for power.
Artie decided to let that drop for now, and had Lunata translate his next words. “I want you to understand that the one Napota calls ‘the evil one’ is not evil. He is a good man. I have been his friend, his brother for many, many years. We have fought side by side in battle, and against much true evil. He has saved my life many times, and I have saved his. He did not attempt to throw me off the cliff. He was trying to rescue me.”
This the chief did not buy. He might hesitate to dispute the god, or even wonder why Armahiga would tell a different story, but whatever kind of villain Napota might be, he would never tell lies about the great god Armahiga. Nor would his companions. He seemed to think Armahiga was testing him. Artemus attempted to describe exactly what had happened, but Radina was adamant. The other man was evil and must die or great misfortune would fall upon the Tatuma, this Titaca had warned.
Seeing that the old man was becoming agitated, not a good thing for a man in his frail condition, Artemus bade his farewell. He tried to convince Lunata to take him to Jim again, but she was too frightened. Not even a command from the Eagle God could overcome her terror, and Artie could only assume she feared retaliation from either Napota or Titaca.
The one last request he made before she left him in his quarters was that she would ask her brother to come see him… by himself.
Seeing the dial of his pocket watch in the dim light shed by the torch out in the corridor was not easy, but Jim’s eyes had become fairly adjusted to the darkness by now. He determined that the hour was after midnight. Because he was unable to see daylight, and especially after the drugged slumber he had experienced, Jim had been unsure what time of day or night it was. However, when Lunata brought his most recent bowl of porridge, he had teased her and flirted a bit, then asked if it was the morning meal. She had assured him that the sun was heading for its place of rest for the night.
So he had waited and listened. The acoustics of the place were interesting, as occasionally he heard voices from far off, though rarely did anyone seem to enter the corridor leading to his cell. A man had later come to collect his eating utensils, and Jim briefly wondered if he had frightened Lunata off with his questions. Of course the man did not understand when he asked of her whereabouts.
But now the silence was deep, and the compound was surely at rest. If they posted guards anywhere each night, he was just going to have to risk it. Enough is enough. I’ve been in this hole for close to forty-eight hours. I’ll find Artie and we’ll get the hell out of here. Jim West was not accustomed to inaction. He did not intend to lay in the darkness any longer, waiting to be dragged out and thrown over a cliff!
The severed portions of the web fell away easily when he pulled on them. He stepped out into the passageway and listened, staring hard back into the darkened far end untouched by the flickering torch. How far did it go? He then lifted the torch out of the hole that had been scraped into the wall to hold it. If the remainder of the place were as dark as this corridor, he would need extra light.
Cautiously he moved toward the opening he could see, constantly listening for any sounds to indicate movement in the next passage, attempting to remember the route he had been taken along when first brought to the Tatuma complex. No use trying to recall the corridors through which he had been dragged when taken to Artie’s chamber. The drug had prevented him from even lifting his head to mark the twists and turns.
The next connected passage ran perpendicular to the one he had been in. It was also wider and he could see the shadowy shapes of doorways along it in both directions. Which way, James? Closing his eyes a moment, he thought about that last movement when he had first been brought in. A right turn. Yes, he was certain. The last turn had been a right one. So he went left.
How do these people prevent themselves from become inextricably lost in this maze? The answer was simple: they had lived in it all their lives. Negotiating the warren of rooms and corridors was as easy to them as for the people in a large city, going from one neighborhood to another. To a stranger, all was a confusing mix of paved streets and buildings that looked alike. Same with these passages to Jim; some were narrower than others, a few had more torches illuminating their byway, but were all virtually identical to him. The residents undoubtedly saw “landmarks” or simply knew which way to turn.
By carefully peeking into a few doors, which had no covering, he saw that they were homes to families, with rough wooden or leather furnishings. In a couple, he saw occupants who were actually sleeping on mats on the floor, but most appeared to have additional rooms where the residents apparently slumbered.
And this is all carved out of solid rock, he marveled as he continued through the murky halls. Somewhere Artemus was sleeping—presumably. Seems as though Artie, even as a god, is as much a prisoner as I am, not free to ramble about the complex on his own. Of course, the language barrier was there. Either of them would need someone like Lunata at his side.
Jim was unsure how long he had been wandering when he suddenly peered into a room—this one with a woven curtain over the door—and espied what he thought was a familiar shape sprawled on a stone slab. He entered carefully, holding the torch high.
Artemus came awake instantly when the hand touch his shoulder and he stared up into the torch-lit face of his partner. “Jim! What are you doing here?”
“I’m planning to leave. Want to come along?”
Artie sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the stone bed. “Actually, no. Jim,” he said soberly.
Jim was stunned. “What the devil? Don’t tell me you’ve decided you like being a god!”
“Well, it has its plusses. But listen. This afternoon I had a long talk with Titaca and…”
“Talk with Titaca! Did you learn the language suddenly?” Jim hissed, finding himself highly irritated with his partner.
“Sit down,” Artie said patiently, patting the stone surface beside him. “And listen. We’ve been caught in a power struggle, as I’m sure you’re aware. Napota wants to be headman when his father dies, but most of the tribe would prefer Amanito. Titaca is playing both sides. Right now, with our appearance on the scene, Napota has the upper hand. He produced the Eagle God, after all.”
“I know all that,” Jim grumbled. “But I don’t want to be tossed off the cliff.”
Artie continued as if his partner had not spoken. “Somehow we stumbled into a situation involving this tribe’s most powerful legend, the Eagle God. It’s an incredible coincidence that I resemble the reproduction of this god—whether or not it’s accurate in the first place. It’s their beliefs, Jim, even if we regard it as superstitious mumbo-jumbo.”
“Artie, would you get to the point? The longer we sit here and talk, the greater our chances of being caught.”
Artemus put a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “Never fear. The great Eagle God will protect you.”
“Not if they decide you’re not a god after all, or that you are an evil double.”
“Jim, listen to me. We can’t go off and leave Napota in charge.”
Artie was silent a moment. “I guess I’ve gotten to know these people better than you have.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
Artie heard the edge in Jim’s voice. “I know it’s been rough on you sitting in that dark cell. But I think…”
Jim got to his feet. “Artie, from what I understand, I’m to be executed.”
“Yeah,” Artie sighed. “Tomorrow night as a matter of fact. Or, what time is it? Maybe I should say tonight.”
Jim West shook his head slowly. “And you weren’t worried?”
“As I said, I had a nice conversation with Titaca. His English is not as good as his sister’s, but he does know the language. So does Amanito, for that matter. I learned there’s an alternative to the sacrifice.”
“Oh?” Jim folded his arms across his chest.
“All you have to do is to defeat three of their best men in hand-to-hand combat.”
A long silence before Jim spoke again. “One at a time?”
“Well… I’m not sure.”
“I suppose they’ll be carrying spears, knives, and tomahawks while I’m unarmed.”
Now Artemus got to his feet, troubled by the anger on his friend’s face and in his tone. “Jim, I’m sorry. I guess… I got carried away. I mean I have confidence in your ability to…”
Jim sighed. “Artie, it’s a good thing you’re my friend or I might be very, very upset with you.”
“Well, if you’re not upset with me now, I don't think I want to be around when you are!”
Jim sat down again. “When is this coliseum-style spectacle to take place?”
“Tomorrow afternoon—or rather this afternoon. I was going to come tell you in the morning.”
Artemus winced. I handled this badly! “I warned Titaca about attempting to drug you again.”
“That’s good. I expect I’ll need all the nourishment I can get.”
Now Artie sat beside him. “Jim, I am sorry. I got so caught up in helping these people…. They’re not fierce warriors. All they want is to be left alone. One can’t fault them for their religious beliefs… even if they are a bit extreme. The tribe is slowly dying out. Every year, a few young people leave, just as Lunata’s father did years ago. But they aren’t returning. At least the defectors have kept the tribe’s location secret thus far. But the Tatuma don’t want to be invaded by curious white men, nor treasure seekers.”
“Do they have treasure?”
“I don't think so. Nothing more than what they treasure, like the statue of Armahiga. But that wouldn’t stop civilization from encroaching on them.”
“What happens if I can’t defeat these three finest fighters? Do you settle down with Lunata and raise little gods?”
For one instant, Artemus thought his friend’s anger had returned. But in the dim light from the flickering torch, he saw Jim’s mouth twitch. “If that happens, I promise to name my first son after you. But I have confidence in you, James. You can fight dirty when the occasion demands. Titaca says such contests are ‘no holds barred.’”
Jim glanced around the dark room. “If nothing else, it’ll be nice to see some sunshine again. Perhaps we can get an idea of where the horses are being held.”
“I made a point of asking Titaca about them, but he claimed he didn’t know. Napota has laid dibs on Blackjack, you know.”
“At least he has good taste.” Jim rose again. “I’d better try to find my cozy little room again. Not sure how I’m going to explain the torn netting.”
“Just tell them it was old and rotted. You’ll gain points by the fact that you obviously didn’t take advantage of it.” Artie grinned briefly. “As for returning, it’s not that difficult. Turn left in the corridor here, then the first two rights, a left, and finally a right.”
Jim stared at his partner. “You’ve been to my cell only once!”
“Ah, but I have a good memory.”
Following Artie’s instructions through the darkened corridors, Jim found his quarters with little difficulty. He spent some time tying together the loose ends of the woven door to his cell. Perhaps only because of the dimness, when Lunata brought his breakfast, she did not appear to spot anything amiss.
Jim, however, noticed that she was unhappy about something, and when he queried, she admitted she was concerned about his safety, and told him about the contest. Jim feigned surprise, but assured her he would be able to handle himself. Lunata just shook her head sadly. “Amerta, Incala, and Tabuna very powerful, very clever. They always win.”
Just to be on the safe side, and not as trusting as his partner, Jim ate a couple of spoonfuls of his meal and then waited a while to see if he detected any adverse effects on his system. He remembered how he had started feeling numb in his extremities after devouring the drugged meal and reasoned that he should feel at least a tingling if this bowl contained any of the same “medicine.”
After about a half hour, and not noticing anything, he ate the rest of the now cooled porridge. As he had told Artemus, he would need all his stamina in the upcoming contest, and going without a meal, even one as dull as this repetitive porridge, was important. He presumed the Tatuma ate this type of food regularly, and as a rule, they appeared healthy. He had not thought to ask Artie if he was being served a different menu.
Carrying out the charade, so as to not allow any of the tribe to be aware Jim had exited his prison overnight, “Armahiga” arrived at the cell, accompanied by the two heirs-apparent and the shaman, as well as Lunata to act as interpreter. Titaca remained silent.
Artemus allowed the others to make the announcement as he stood by, arms folded, and—he hoped—looking “godlike.” Titaca explained that he had realized that ancient laws allowed a potential sacrifice the opportunity to save his life by competing in mortal combat and asked if the “evil one” wished to do so. Artie saw Jim’s eyes widen slightly as the “mortal combat” aspect was mentioned. He himself was startled. Titaca had not mentioned that the battle would be to the death. Napota looks pretty smug. Wonder if the fight to the death business is his contribution to the ancient laws.
Jim was only slightly relieved when, upon his inquiry, Lunata replied no weapons would be involved. “Only hands.” He had seen a few pretty brawny men in the tribe, especially among those who had originally captured him: Napota’s followers. Were Amerta, Incala, and Tabuna in Napota’s camp?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
SS senior field agent
Posted - 01/01/2012 : 16:35:50
Di nos quasi pilas homines habent.
[The gods play games with men as balls.]
—Captivi Prologue (XXII), Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus; 254-184 BC), Roman dramatist
Artemus blinked his eyes rapidly as he stepped out into the bright afternoon sunlight. Jim had been right. Feeling the warmth of the sun, breathing the fresh air was a good thing. If only we were emerging from the depths of the warren for another reason! Unhappily, he watched his partner being led out into the daylight. Jim’s wrists were bound behind him, a noose—a leash of sorts—around his neck. His shirt had been removed but he still wore his trousers and boots. A large number of the Tatuma were generally barefoot, although few wore rough woven sandals.
Artie had been “requested” to wear a tribal costume, and he relented only to removing his shirt and replacing it with a woven tunic of sorts decorated with the usual symbols portraying the eagle. They had wanted him to doff his boots and trousers but he had been adamant. Not knowing what was coming up, he most assuredly did not want to be barefoot if an escape attempt was proven necessary. He did accept a headdress of feathers and woven straw, an arrangement very similar to the one that adorned the statue of Armahiga in the large anteroom.
As they walked along a narrow ledge, Artie could not help but notice how the Tatuma—men, women, and children—appeared to be admiring Jim West’s chiseled physique, lithe and slim, compared to the generally more bulky build of the tribesmen. He had not yet learned which of the men were to be Jim’s opponents, but he thought that as a rule, the physical condition of the males was nowhere near that of Jim’s. He had come to realize that the most labor the males did was to wander out into the desert seeking dry wood for fires, or perhaps hunting for rabbits or other small creatures to supplement their diet. Artie hoped that the conditioning aspect would be an important plus for Jim.
A further surprise was that Chief Radina was attending the festivities. His condition had not improved, so he was being borne on a litter toted by four young men, one of them his younger son. Napota apparently deigned such effort beyond him, as he strutted ahead of the procession.
One other item, which Lunata had revealed to him this morning, was worrisome. Amanito had told her that initially Napota had violently objected to the contest, stating that he had wanted the “evil one” executed as planned. The only way he relented was for Amanito to agree to a specific condition, and that was if Jim lost, Amanito was to relinquish all claims to the leadership of the tribe. Further, Amanito was to be banished. Obviously, Napota did not want a “two-party system” with a friendly, or unfriendly, opposition during his rule.
As Titaca trailed closely behind Radina’s litter on the trek to the combat arena, Artemus could only wonder if he himself had played right into Napota’s hands by conferring with the shaman and thus allowing him to bring up the supposed tribal tradition that would allow the condemned to fight for his life. Of course, these men had no knowledge of Jim’s prowess in physical combat. On the other side of the coin, Jim had never encountered this tribe before, had no awareness of their methods of fighting.
Artie had asked Lunata how Napota was so sure that the god Armahiga would be on his side if he banished his brother. Lunata had avoided a direct answer, but Artie had his suspicions. He would have to eat, and who knew how many and what kind of potions Titaca concocted? Jim appeared alert and healthy this morning so apparently Titaca had kept his promise to not drug him, but the shaman might have one that would lower the god’s defenses and make him subject to the will of Napota in the future. Well, if Jim is unsuccessful, my chances of escaping from here are pretty slim anyway.
The arena was a broad and somewhat shallow canyon, or arroyo, with sloping sides and a grassy area about fifty feet broad on the bottom, apparently nourished by an underground water source. As the spectators arrayed themselves on the sides, Artemus got his first really good grasp of the size of the population, and its dynamics. He saw about fifty people, of which only around a half dozen were small children. He was not surprised to notice that more than half the adults were close to middle-aged or older, with a few very gray heads interspersed.
Yes, the tribe is dying out. Quite possibly the necessity to intermarry has caused health problems over the years. Without contact with outside civilization, and new blood, this will probably continue. Napota, the elder son, looks to be less than forty; likely Radina isn’t much more than sixty, but he appears much more ancient.
Artemus watched closely as the ceremonies progressed. Jim was required to kneel in the center of the grassy plot while Titaca danced around shaking feathers, a gourd rattle and another gourd apparently filled with water, which he attempted to sprinkle on Jim. Artie was glad, and not entirely surprised, to see that Jim leaned away from the water, so that only small droplets reached his bare skin. Titaca could not make a real effort to ensure that the liquid struck the contestant, lest anyone discern what both of the outsiders were realizing, that the water could contain some mixture that would create havoc with Jim’s system. The worried expression on Titaca’s countenance suggested that he was aware his strategy was not being successful. Napota was also glowering more than usual.
Finally, the noose was removed from Jim’s neck and his arms released. He stood up and waited as Titaca began a long and impassioned speech, which obviously was the introduction of the tribe’s champions, as three men stepped out from the others, one by one. The first was the real surprise, a youth who appeared to be not much more than seventeen or eighteen, but also in fine physical condition, his body not yet running to the softness that his elders displayed. This was Tabuna, he gathered. The young man strutted around, posturing, waving, and grinning widely. The spectators yelled back, encouraging him.
Next was Amerta, a man Jim guessed was around his own age, broad of chest, but also with an apparently soft belly. He was shorter than Tabuna, and Jim judged that even with his apparent softness, he owned certain strength in his upper body. These three men were, as he understood, the champions of the tribe, so they had to be better than others.
The third man, Incala, was older still, possibly in his forties, with strands of silver in his long dark hair. He appeared in better condition than Amerta, but not as fine as the young Tabuna. Jim noticed his calculating appraisal of the man the trio were set to defeat. This was a man who relied more on guile and thus, despite his age, might be the most dangerous opponent.
Jim had thought about the fact that the combat was to be weaponless, yet to the death, and now he noticed how all three men continued to flex their hands as they took their positions in a triangular configuration around him. He had not really looked at their hands previously, but now realized that all three had powerful-appearing hands. That must be the strategy, he decided. They’ll try to get their fingers around my neck!
Titaca continued his invocation, going to each of the three champions and sprinkling a liquid on them—from a different gourd than previously, Jim was sure. He had noticed that the few droplets that had reached his skin from the earlier ceremony had caused a mild burning sensation. He could only wonder what his condition would be had more of the liquid been poured on him. Would it have produced discomfort that would have debilitated or distracted him?
Jim looked toward his partner, standing next to the litter which had been placed on a slant so that Radina could continue to recline, yet view the action. Artie’s face was stern, even a little worried, as his arms were folded across the tribal costume he wore. Jim nodded toward him, and was rewarded by a return nod, and even a little smile of encouragement.
At long last, Titaca left the arena, joining the royal party that included “Armahiga.” Jim waited, certain that a particular ritual would define this combat and it did. The three men began to slowly move in one direction, circling him at a distance of about six feet. They expected to distract him so that one would be able to make a move.
He watched them carefully, studying their faces, particularly their eyes, and he guessed which one would make the first move. He surmised correctly, as abruptly Tabuna lunged toward him. The young are the least patient. Jim waited until the last second as Tabuna’s hands were reaching for his throat. He was barely aware of the screams from the spectators as he reacted, bringing up both arms to thrust Tabuna’s away, then swinging his right down to slam into the youth’s solar plexus, the left up to the chin. Tabuna staggered back, eyes momentarily wide with surprise before crumpling to the grass.
Jim spun around to face the remaining pair. If they had been startled by the sudden and unexpected fate of their young companion, they did not reveal such an emotion on their stoic faces as they moved farther apart, so as to not allow him to watch both of them at the same time. Again, Jim had to try to judge their next move, and again he was correct. The duo did not act as one, any more than the trio had. As well, they were saving the “best” until last. Amerta waited until Jim turned his head toward Incala, then charged.
Unlike Tabuna, Amerta did not go for the jugular, so to speak, but flailed his arms in an obvious attempt to land a stunning blow. Jim found it easy to dodge the swipes, though Amerta was not as easy to disable as Tabuna. A blow to the soft stomach elicited an “oof!” and caused Amerta to stagger slightly, but he did not open up his chin as Tabuna had. He even landed a grazing blow on Jim’s jaw, which caused Jim to back up slightly and take a quick glance at Incala, who was wary but still intent on waiting his turn. Thank goodness for their fighting techniques!
Jim danced a bit, feinting toward Amerta with his fists, and then abruptly left his feet to slam his boots into Amerta’s midriff. Amerta cried out, doubling over in pain, gasping for breath. Jim scrambled to his feet, cast another look at the patient Incala, and used one-two punches to put Amerta on the ground.
Now he turned to Incala, seeing the narrow-eyed intelligence gazing back at him. Incala had taken in all the moves, and he would be wary. Perhaps that was why he was still considered a “champion” at his rather advanced age. Jim was aware of the hot sun on his head and shoulders, felt the perspiration dripping off his face onto his already sweating body. They are accustomed to this weather; I’m not. I’ve got to end this quickly before the heat saps my strength!
Artemus watched as the two men circled warily, like two cats, waiting for an opening to pounce. Incala had a few inches in height on Jim, and perhaps twenty or thirty pounds. Older, and maybe wiser, he reflected. Artie had come to the conclusion that the strategy was to grasp one’s opponent by the throat, to choke into unconsciousness—or death. He was pretty certain Jim had divined that as well by now. Tabuna’s attack, in particular, had been obvious.
He heard the yells from the spectators and wondered whom they were rooting for at this point. He had seen their awe and admiration as the challenger took out the first two champions. Were any of them now cheering for an “upset,” for the underdog “evil one”? Glancing at his nearby companions, Artie saw conflicting emotions on their faces as well. Lunata and Amanito were tense, but displayed some hope now that Jim had downed the first two. Napota was furious, Titaca obviously worried. Only Radina seemed content to accept the results, whatever they were.
Incala suddenly lunged and swung a heavy fist toward Jim, who dodged it adroitly and answered with a blow to the chin, which unfortunately did not land solidly as Incala jerked his head back. Again the pair circled, and just as Artemus reflected that the tribesman had longer legs than Jim, Incala suddenly stuck his bare foot out and caught Jim behind the knee, pulling forward.
Jim went down, his face contorting with pain as his leg twisted under him. Incala took advantage, hurling his body atop Jim’s, pinning his opponent’s arms to his sides with his knees as his hands wrapped around Jim’s neck. Artemus Gordon watched in pure horror, as the powerful hands tightened. Jim struggled fiercely, but he was helpless.
My God! I’ve got to help! Even as the words flew through his mind, Artie knew that the only thing he would accomplish would be to be slain as well. Maybe that’s preferable... Rational thinking prevailed. If Jim was to die, he himself had to be available to avenge him. After all, Artemus, it’s all your fault. Your damnable brilliant ideas! Jim!
He saw his partner suddenly go limp, eyes closing. A wrenching pain cut through Artemus Gordon’s soul as Incala grinned widely and started to sit back, his powerful hands loosening their grip. At that moment, the “dead man” under him acted, arching his back and bucking the unwary Incala off to one side.
Jim jumped to his feet, ignoring the knives of agony in his left leg. Incala too was scrambling up, but Jim acted faster. His injured leg precluded the jump-kick, but he used his fists, ramming them piston-like into Incala’s midriff and chest, with a few lifting to batter the exposed chin when Incala tried to fend off the body blows. Incala finally went down.
Artemus Gordon closed his eyes for a moment, saying a silent prayer of thanks, and wondering when he was going to learn to stop underestimating his partner. When he looked again, Jim was standing quietly, not acknowledging the cheers of the spectators. Perspiration gleamed on his naked back and chest, golden from the hours he and Artemus had spent in fields near their parked train practicing the arts of self-defense against each other.
Titaca was the first one to move, obviously belatedly remembering that he was the master of ceremonies of a sort for the affair. He walked out to Jim, nodded to him, and motioned to follow him. Only then did Artie realize his partner had been injured. Jim was trying to hide it, but he was limping. Jim was led to stand before Radina’s litter.
The old man held out a hand and after a moment, Jim realized he was supposed to take that hand, which he did. Radina spoke several sentences, and Lunata stepped over beside him to translate. “The chief say you are the champion, that only a man with a pure heart could defeat the old champions. You are no longer a prisoner, and welcomed to reside with the Tatuma.”
Jim glanced at Artemus, remembering his partner’s stated desire to remain and help the tribe therefore he himself did not speak up to ask if they were free to leave. Besides, they still consider Artie their god. That has to be straightened out first. He merely bowed slightly and spoke his gratitude, which Lunata translated.
Artie stepped over then to grip Jim’s arm. “You’re hurt.”
“I think my knee is sprained. But I don’t want that damned Titaca treating it!”
Artie smothered a grin. “I think the great god Armahiga can take care of you with Great Aunt Maude’s poultice.”
The party was not over yet, as some women performed a dance, followed by men doing a more vigorous step. At least Lunata provided Jim with a jug of cool water to drink. He would have liked to sit down, but none of the dignitaries were doing so, thus he stood alongside Artemus and watched the display. In between the dances, Titaca did some more orating.
Artemus had been picking up enough of the language to realize that the shaman was probably not giving Jim the credit he deserved. The fact that both Lunata and Amanito were deeply frowning confirmed his suspicions. Titaca continued to refer to Jim as the “evil one” and appeared to be crediting black magic for Jim’s victory. Artie could not discern from the spectators’ somber, thoughtful faces just how they were receiving this. At least none appeared to be ready to form a lynch mob of sorts.
Finally the affair wound down. The men picked up Radina’s litter to bear him back inside. Artie could see that the elderly man was exhausted, quite probably at least partially from the heat. The old woman who appeared to be his housekeeper had been nearby fanning him, giving him drinks of water, but he was a sick man.
As they walked back toward the cliff dwelling, Artie knew his partner was also exhausted. At least my headdress gave me some protection from the blazing sun. The painful leg, which Jim continued to try to hide, would be sapping his stamina as well. Add into that the physical activity and the throttling he had endured… Artie could see the bruises on Jim’s throat. He may not have gone entirely unconscious, feigning that bit, but most assuredly he had been unable to breathe for long seconds. Thank goodness Incala’s ego overcame the possible need for caution. He wanted to celebrate his victory too soon, without making sure of his victim.
The god Armahiga was escorted to his chambers, with Jim trailing along. When Titaca indicated that Jim should be taken away, Artie protested, insisting that the new champion remain. Perhaps because a number of citizens had accompanied them, the shaman relented. Napota and Amanito were not among the crowd, but neither was Lunata, so Artie hoped that the young woman was with the brothers and would help prevent any problems between them, if only because Napota would not want her as a witness.
Too bad the agreement regarding the result of the combat reached between the brothers was so one-sided, so that Napota would now be forced to leave the tribe. But for whatever reason, that had not happened, probably, Artie reasoned, because the younger brother was much more compassionate. He would not want his brother to suffer the cruelty of exile, despite what Napota preferred for him.
Titaca remained as the crowd dispersed, and perhaps regretted his decision as the Eagle God laid into him for first of all, allowing the bargain to be struck between the brothers and then reneging on his promise to not attempt to drug Jim. Titaca denied all, of course, speaking English now that witnesses had departed. He had nothing to do with the pact. Amanito had acted wisely in arranging the bout, and Armahiga should be grateful because otherwise Napota would not have allowed the contest to take place. The “evil one” would have been slain as planned.
As for the idea that he tried to inhibit Jim’s abilities with a potion, he was horrified with the accusation. The water in the gourd was “holy water,” he claimed, and had the “evil one” allowed himself to be doused, he would have had the strength of ten men, with all his demons exorcised. He then offered to treat the champion having noticed himself the way Jim favored his leg.
Artie sent him off with a request for a bowl of hot water and some cloths. “Maybe that wasn’t smart,” he admitted as Titaca vanished, turning to Jim who now stretched out on the stone bed.
“You can try the water on yourself first,” Jim muttered, allowing all his muscles to relax. “Man, I feel like a wrung-out rag!”
Artemus surveyed him, noticing the dark circles under the eyes. The unshaven jaw might be hiding lines of fatigue. “I wonder if Titaca slipped you something after all, but miscalculated when it would take affect. Or perhaps the sprinkle of holy water would have speeded it along. How’s your neck?”
“Sore. But not as bad as my leg.”
“You put on quite a show out there, James. Congratulations.”
Jim eyed his partner. “Thank you,” he replied acidly. “But don’t you ever do anything like that again!”
“I promise,” Artemus replied, and grinned. Both men knew that each would do whatever was required to survive.
Jim sighed. “I didn’t notice any signs of the horses.”
“No. But as I came out of the compound, I looked the opposite direction, and I believe there are some more canyons in that direction.”
“That’s possible,” Jim concurred. “That’s the direction we came from. I was too busy staying on my feet to admire the countryside.”
“Staying on your feet? What…?”
Jim realized that his partner had been unconscious during that whole journey. “They had me leashed like today. Seems to be a favorite way to travel.”
“Yeah,” Artemus growled. He then frowned thoughtfully. “This did not occur to me before now, but obviously the tribe has some cows or goats. I’ve been fed a bit of tasty cheese.”
“Well, congratulations. Something a little better than that flavored porridge I’ve been getting.”
“Oh, I was served that too, only with a chunk of cheese on the side. Now that you are no longer persona non grata—I hope—perhaps you’ll be fed a little better.”
Lunata entered then, bearing a bowl of steaming water and several rough cloths over her arm. Her unhappy expression led Artie to inquire the reason as he soaked the cloths to wrap around Jim’s knee. With the woman there, Jim declined to remove his trousers. They would dry.
Lunata stated that the brothers had had a fierce argument in their father’s chamber, and that Radina was very, very ill. She still feared that Napota would seize control, regardless of the will of the people. Sadly, she was certain her elder brother was still cooperating with Napota. She had hoped otherwise.
“Lunata, if your brother was… removed from his position, who would become magic one?”
Her smile was shy. “Lunata. Titaca and old magic one, they teach Lunata long time ago. But Titaca magic one long as he live.”
Jim lifted himself up on one elbow. “Artie, we can’t interfere in tribal affairs.”
Artemus looked at him in some surprise. “Jim, I told you I wanted to help them.”
“I know you did. And I would like to help as well. But we won’t be around to follow through if you take the bull by the horns. Titaca and Napota would be here.”
Artie knew what he meant then. Even if “Armahiga” were able to influence the selection of the new chief, and possibly depose the overly ambitious shaman, neither agent would cold-bloodedly slay those two men. Even if exiled, both Titaca and Napota would be free to return as soon as the white men departed, and possibly wreak vengeance.
“You’re right,” Artie said resignedly. “We have to allow nature to take its course, as it were.”
Lunata was looking from one to the other, confusion on her pretty face. “What you say?”
Artie put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Lunata. My friend and I will be here long enough to let his leg heal, and perhaps we can find a way to help your tribe.”
Now she frowned. “Armahiga leave?”
The two men looked at each other, realizing each had pretty much forgotten for the moment Artie’s status as the tribal Eagle God. Despite the outcome of today’s contest, nothing had been said about either man being allowed to depart, especially the god.
“Don’t worry,” Artie said again, putting a smile on his face. “I won’t desert you. Lunata, there is one thing Armahiga would like to know, and that is what was the sign that the old magic one, and your brother, saw that indicated you were to be the Eagle God’s bride. Is there some way you can find out?”
She shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe so. I never ask. Titaca maybe tell me. It is important?”
“Might be. Go on now. Both the Eagle God and the evil one need to rest awhile. All right?”
Lunata departed, casting one last long glance toward the still shirtless reclining Jim West. Artemus smothered a smile. He had seen it before. Even happily married women feasted their eyes on the handsome young agent.
“Evil one,” Jim yawned. “Seems like I should have a new name.”
“I doubt the three you lambasted think of you as anything else by now.” Artie dipped another cloth in the still steaming water, eyed his partner thoughtfully. “You all right?”
“Tired,” Jim muttered, suddenly finding it hard to keep his eyes open.
Damn! I didn’t think to ask Lunata if Titaca was anywhere near this water, Artie chastised himself. “Jim?”
Jim’s eyes had closed. Artie quickly picked up the limp wrist and with a great deal of relief felt a strong pulse; Jim’s chest was rising and falling evenly as well. Was this just the result of fatigue, or had Titaca indeed doped the water, which by now would have been absorbed through the pores, perhaps similar to what he attempted to sprinkle on Jim’s skin prior to the match? However, he realized, he himself had had his hands in that water with thus far no ill effects. So perhaps only exhaustion affected Jim.
Neither Titaca nor Napota had been thrilled with Jim’s victory, Artie knew. They had counted on the trio to be able to defeat, and probably slay, Jim, thus removing what the pair obviously realized was an obstacle. Napota surely had been aware from the outset that the injured man on the cliff was not the Eagle God, despite the strong resemblance, but decided to try to use that likeness to his advantage, separating the partners and casting Jim in the role of villain and murderer. He had also likely thought to put himself in the role of hero and protector by slaying the mortal who attempted to murder the Eagle God.
My talking to too many people about Jim being my friend may have slowed him down, casting too many doubts. Which is why he assented to the contest—and demanded the conditions from his brother. But he didn’t get rid of Jim, and he didn’t get rid of Amanito. When Radina passes away, Napota will still face the challenge of his brother’s popularity.
Lunata returned then, her face full of dismay, with two men. “They come take… Jim to other place.”
Artemus stiffened. The two men with her were Incala and Amerta, both with bruised and scowling faces. “No,” he said firmly. “My friend stays here with me now.”
Lunata relayed this to the pair; their scowls deepened, but they departed, probably not having instructions to use force. What next?
“I sorry,” Lunata said softly, coming further into the room. “Napota say…”
Artie smiled at her. “It’s all right. I understand.”
She looked at the dozing Jim. “He sick?”
“Just weary.” No use making any accusations now. Lunata was upset already at being forced to comply with Napota’s commands, when she plainly realized the former combatants would be up to no good. Would they have strangled Jim before leaving him in his cell?
“I ask Titaca,” Lunata went on then. “He say old magic one tell him that signs say Lunata will marry the wise and powerful one.”
“Not necessarily the Eagle God?” She shook her head. “A wise and powerful one could be a leader, your tribe’s chief. Someone jumped to conclusions. Who told you that you must marry the Eagle God, even if you had to be sacrificed to him to do it?”
She frowned. “Not remember well. Maybe Chief Radina.” The frown deepened. “Maybe Titaca tell Napota…” A little anger appeared in the dark eyes now as she began to realize. “Napota want Lunata for bride!”
Artie nodded. “Did Titaca ever suggest that you could avoid being sacrificed if you were the chief’s wife?”
“Yes!” she snapped. “Lunata foolish one!”
“No, not really. You had no reason to doubt your brother.”
Her chin came up. “I never marry Napota! No marry Armahiga!” She suddenly realized what she was saying and extended a pleading hand. “Please forgive me!”
Artemus took her hand. “Don’t worry, Lunata. You haven’t hurt my feelings at all. I believe in true love, and you do love Amanito, I know that. But please, do not let anyone know how your thoughts have changed. You must continue as before, obeying Napota as much as possible, as well as your brother.”
Jim roused about two hours later, admitting that he felt much better after the nap, if a little foggy in the head. “Was I drugged?”
“I’m not sure. Lunata brought the water, but that’s no guarantee Titaca didn’t slip something into it. You went out so fast, I have to believe something caused it. I had my hands in that water, but perhaps that wasn’t enough for it to affect me.”
Jim sat up, rubbing his bewhiskered cheeks. “Guess I should be grateful he didn’t put something deadly in it. But what was the purpose?”
Grimly, Artie told him about the two men who wanted to take him away. “I used my godlike powers and dissuaded them.”
“Phew! Thanks. Incala and Amerta, huh? Wonder if I would have lived to reach my charming little cell.”
“Obviously, the motive for the drugged water—if it was drugged—was to ensure that you’d be in no condition to fight back. Jim, this is getting serious!”
“Getting serious! Artemus, as far as I’m concerned, it’s been serious since you took the tumble over the cliff. Especially when Napota and his pals dragged me in with a noose around my neck!”
“Yeah, I guess we did have slightly disparate points of view at the outset. I underestimated how serious Napota is about gaining the chiefdom. He’s willing to do almost anything. Seems that once he’s named chief, nothing can depose him except death. I wouldn’t put it passed him to harm his own brother to gain his ambition.”
“He appears to be a clever man,” Jim commented. “Or else it’s the shaman, Titaca. I suspect if harm did come to Amanito, it would look like an accident, such as a slip over a cliff.”
Artemus nodded. “While I believe Amanito is intelligent in his own way, he also may be too trusting. We need to get him aside and tell him that if he goes for a walk with his brother, to stay on the inside of the path.”
“Yeah, and perhaps he should hire an official taster of his food. I’m thinking of doing that myself. Want the job?”
“No thanks! I might need one myself.”
“Not right away, Artie. I have an idea Napota has other ideas for you. He would not kill off the goose that might lay the golden eggs, so to speak. To have Armahiga’s blessing would be the cherry atop the whipped cream of being crowned chief.”
“He’s not going to get my blessing!”
“That’s why you might eventually need a food taster, when Napota comes to realize that. If Titaca has a drug that will weaken your will…”
“I see what you mean. Jim, I think the smartest thing for us to do is to get out of here as soon as possible.”
“Isn’t that what I’ve been saying all along?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Rub it in.” Artemus sighed deeply. “I still hate the idea of going away and leaving these people to Napota’s heavy-handed rule.”
“What we have to do is both, partner. There’s got to be a way.”
Artemus nodded, then gazed sternly at his partner. “We have a much more urgent problem.”
“You are not taking over my bed, pal.”
“And I’m not going back to that cramped cell.”
Artie met Jim’s firm stare a moment, then grinned. “Next time Lunata comes in, I’ll see if she can round up some more blankets. We can flip a coin to see who sleeps on the floor. I’m pretty sure they can’t just carve another bed out of the wall in a jiffy.”
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell!
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, hold, hold!
—Macbeth (act 1, scene 5), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
Jim awakened into the dimness, the pitch black of the interior rooms relieved only by the single flickering torch in the sconce near the door. He wondered what had disturbed his sleep. Artemus was obviously still in deep slumber on his stone bed. At least the blankets and robes Lunata provided relieved the hardness of the floor to some extent. Much better than the cold floor in the cell.
He sat up. Perhaps the nap he had taken had shortened the night for him, rousing him in the deep silence of the cliff dwelling because he had had enough rest. He could hear nothing now. Usually the only sounds that reverberated through the complex appeared to be those of activity in the passageways. The walls of the various rooms blocked sound otherwise.
At least they might get an opportunity to shave today, perhaps even bathe and change clothes. Amanito had come to the room late last night to tell them that his father was doing well despite the apparent exhaustion following his outing yesterday. Amanito had worried that the exertion might be too much for him. When Artie asked, the young man stated he knew where the horses were pastured, and also where the saddles and other gear had been stored.
As they suspected, the steeds were being kept in a canyon located in the opposite direction from where the arena was located, in an area with available grass and water, where the tribe’s goats also grazed. The agents requested that he bring their saddlebags to them if he could without making trouble for himself. Jim also asked if a bath was possible. Amanito seemed surprised by the request. He would arrange for it on the morrow, apparently puzzled why such an amenity had not been offered to at least the god Armahiga previously. When he had gone, Jim had grinned at his partner. “I didn’t know gods needed to bathe.”
Jim was about to lie back down when he heard a sound, an almost indefinable sound. Tensing, he remained very still and listened; then he carefully lay down, closing his eyes to a mere slit. The sibilant whisper came from just outside the door, and a moment later, two shadows moved into the room, which was illuminated now only by the torches out in the passageways. They paused for a long moment, then headed for the stone couch.
Jim West leapt out of the bed and only by sheer willpower did not immediately collapse as pain shot through his injured leg—the injury he had momentarily forgotten about. The cry of the man he grabbed roused Artemus, who came awake immediately, throwing his top blanket aside as he instantly grasped the situation.
The battle lasted just a few seconds, as the two intruders broke free and raced away into the darkness, but not before dropping something that clattered to the floor. Artemus started to give chase, but Jim grabbed his arm. “Never mind. They’ll lose themselves in the maze of corridors before we can come close.” He reached down to pick up the shiny object from the floor, holding it in the palm of his hand as Artie quickly stepped out to light one of the rooms torches from another one and returned.
“That’s your knife!” Artie exclaimed.
Jim nodded. “It was with my jacket in the cell.” Artie had asked Lunata to bring Jim’s shirt, and she followed the request literally, bringing only the shirt that Jim had removed before heading out to the contest yesterday. Jim had laughed about it, saying he would get his jacket later. Although the interior rooms of the dwelling were cool, he was comfortable in shirtsleeves, and the blankets had kept him warm while sleeping.
“What in the world?”
Jim’s face was somber. “Simple: two birds with one stone. They went straight for you, Artie. Killed with my knife, I would have been executed for your murder. A god’s murder.”
“Has to be Napota… or Titaca… or both.”
“I’m thinking both. But we have no proof whatsoever. I’m not sure the old man would believe his son’s treachery.”
“In his condition,” Artie said quietly, “I would not care to bother him with it. I expect to hear almost momentarily that he has passed. I’m sure that you would have been executed for my murder, and Napota would have taken all the credit. Almost as good as having a god in his corner.” He looked toward the doorway. “Sure wish we could lock that.”
Jim chuckled. “Hard to lock a blanket. Let’s go back to bed. They won’t try anything further tonight.”
The only certain way to discern that morning had come—or for that matter, when night had fallen—was to listen to the noises of the cliff dwelling. Artemus sat up when he heard the sound of voices in the distance, a now familiar harbinger that dawn had broken. He had not slept well after the intruders, and he knew his partner had not either. They had not spoken again, but he had heard the restless sounds from the bed on the floor.
“Oh, for a cup of coffee,” Jim groaned, stretching.
“I’ll settle for a soft bed,” Artie returned, reaching for the boots he had put on the floor.
Jim got to his feet—he had slept with his boots on—and went to light a second torch in the room from the first, which they had left burning, increasing the brightness but not measurably. “Well, we have our delicious gourmet breakfast to look forward too. Maybe I’ll get some cheese too.”
Artemus laughed. “I warn you, it’s nothing like Wisconsin’s best.”
“At this point, I’m not picky. Do we go in search of breakfast or wait to be served.”
“Oh, we wait to be served, James. After all, consider my status!”
Jim frowned. “How do we know we’re not being poisoned.”
“Aye, there’s the rub. Haven’t located that official taster yet. Perhaps young Tabuna would like the job.”
Lunata brought their breakfast, and when questioned, stated that Titaca had not been near the food she prepared.
“You understand why we ask, Lunata,” Artie said gently.
She nodded sadly. “My brother do bad things. Napota tell him, Titaca do it. I fear for Amanito.”
“We’re going to do our best to make sure Amanito is safe,” Jim said, “but we might some need help from others. I know he has a lot of friends here, but can you name any in particular who would be brave enough to help us?”
“Many people want Amanito to be chief,” she replied slowly. “They afraid of Napota. I do not know… I maybe think and say later.”
As Jim had done previously, they tested a couple of spoonfuls of their meal before deciding it was safe to consume. Amanito arrived as they were finishing. He brought the pouches from their saddles. Informing them that he would show them where they could take baths, he led them down several corridors, to an astonishing cavern where depressions in the floor were filled with steaming water pouring from a hidden hot springs and funneled through the walls.
“It’s not the Ritz,” Artemus sighed as he soaked in the hot water, “but it sure feels good.”
“What will feel really good is to get rid of these whiskers,” Jim returned. “Artie, I’m not sure what more we can do here. Even if you are a ‘god,’ I suspect your powers are limited where choosing the chief is concerned.”
“I’ve been limited ever since I got here. Napota pretty much let me know that I had to work through him for the most part.”
Jim frowned as he lathered his chest. “But he does want you on his side.”
“Yeah, seems so.”
“I kind of got the impression from the start that had he not recognized your resemblance to Armahiga and called others’ attention to it, we could have both been thrown into the canyon. I’m pretty sure he made certain that everyone knew you were the Eagle God before they saw you.”
“Influencing their thinking,” Artemus murmured. “And sacrificing you was just going to enhance his reputation. Kind of surprising that he and Titaca agreed to the combat, except that they probably thought you were a goner.”
“I did too once Incala got his hands around my neck.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Artemus lied. “I knew you had a trick up your sleeve. How’s your leg feeling, by the way?”
“Better all the time. This hot water helps. But the question was… how are we to help Amanito and Lunata, not to mention the rest of the Tatuma? We have no business sticking our nose into their politics.”
“True. Other than the fact that they’ve virtually made me a prisoner and wanted to kill you.”
Jim glared at his partner then shook his head. “Not ‘they.’ Just Napota and maybe Titaca. But we’ve been here what, three days?”
“Four,” Artemus amended.
“All right, four, five. Still not long enough for us to truly know what’s going on. For all we know, Lunata is a deceiver.”
“You don’t believe that, James.”
“No,” Jim sighed. “We’re back to square one. How do we help them?”
“That is the puzzle. I’d like to at least ensure that the tribal election is fair. Not that I’m wishing Radina ill, but we cannot hang around here forever waiting for him to die. I wonder…” Artemus stared at the bar of soap he held.
“I wonder if there’s anything in tribal bylaws that says the election of a new chief has to wait until the former one passes on. If we could persuade them to hold the election right away, and make sure it’s a fair vote…”
“How is the voting held?”
“Danged if I know.”
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
SS senior field agent
Posted - 01/01/2012 : 16:36:45
Who hearkens to the gods, the gods give ear.
—The Iliad [Bryant’s translation] (bk. I, 1.280), Homer (“Smyrna of Chios,” fl. 750 BC or earlier), Greek poet
When Lunata brought their dinner to Artie’s quarters later that day, the question was posed to her regarding the election procedure. She was not entirely clear on the matter because none had been held in her lifetime. She promised to ask the elders and report to them later.
“Hey,” Jim exclaimed as he settled back against the wall, bowl in hand, “this looks like meat! Rabbit?”
“Well, yeah. I told you I had rabbit before, didn’t I?”
“No, you did not. Next time around, I get to be the god. Speaking of which, I think you should use your godlike powers and demand more comfortable quarters.”
“I suspect this is the luxury suite, Jim. These people have made their lives in this manmade cave and probably don’t even notice the hard surfaces. Can you imagine carving this entire warren of passages and rooms out by hand? Must have taken years. Centuries.”
The conversation was interrupted as Lunata reappeared with an elderly, white-haired lady in tow. This was Antada, Lunata explained, the oldest resident and probably the only one who remembered the previous election, which had been held to choose between Radina’s father and uncle; Radina had succeeded by default there being no other heirs at the time.
Antada was obviously awed to be in the presence of the Eagle God, but Artie smiled warmly and spoke quietly, so that she was soon at ease, even if she did not understand what he said to her. Lunata translated their questions and the story was told. As they had learned previously, when a chief died with two or more heirs the leadership did not automatically go to the eldest. The people elected the new chief.
Both agents were surprised to hear that women as well as men participated in the election. The only barrier was age. As near as they could figure from Antada’s description, anyone over about fifteen or sixteen years old was considered an adult and allowed to vote. The method was fairly simple.
Every voter was given two stones (or one each for however many heirs involved) in different colors. For two, they would likely be black and white. Two urns were set up, each designated for one of the candidates. Voters clutched the stones in their hands then reached inside the urn before releasing it. In a form of a “secret ballot,” they placed a stone in each urn. The man who received the most of one color, usually the black one, became the chief. To prevent vote-counting fraud, the magic one, in this case Titaca, counted the stones in full view of the council of elders.
Through Lunata, Artie spoke to Antada for a few minutes, asking questions. After the two women departed, the agents sat in silence for a long moment. Finally Artie sighed noisily. “That didn’t help a whole lot. Especially the part where Antada seemed to nearly faint when I suggested an early election.”
“We might have to go straight to the horse’s mouth, Artie.”
Artie grimaced. “Problem there is the need of a translator. Can’t be Amanito or Titaca. And I’m not sure how much status Lunata has, despite the tribe’s tradition of women’s suffrage. However, I agree we should at least try. I shall exert my status as a deity.”
Feeling the need for haste, and unwilling to wait until Lunata returned the next morning with their breakfasts, the two agents left their quarters and did some exploring. What they quickly learned was that the Tatuma still held Artie in awe—and appeared to fear Jim.
“I thought that was settled when I defeated their trio of champions,” Jim muttered as two young boys froze in their tracks, and then ducked through a doorway.
“Could be that’s why they are frightened,” Artie put in. “No man could defeat three of their best warriors.”
“A man could when they attacked one at a time. I would not have wanted to take on all three at the same time.”
They eventually found themselves in the large anteroom containing the idol of the Eagle God. Artie gazed at it. “You know, the resemblance is really superficial.”
Jim nodded. “You’re right. At first glance, one thinks, ‘that’s Artie.’ But as you look more closely, it’s easy to see that the god was much more handsome.” He shot a sly look at his partner.
“Thanks! But the resemblance was enough to convince Napota to try to use it to his advantage. I’m a little surprised he hasn’t been around to talk to me of late. However, I’m sure that you defeating his boys put a crimp in his plans.”
“He doesn’t strike me as one to give up that easily. I’m sure he has some trick up his sleeve—and may be waiting for his father to die.” Jim looked around toward the outer door, where the early evening twilight was glowing. He jerked his head toward Artemus, and both started for that door.
Almost instantly three men entered the anteroom from the same door they had used and moved to block the exit to the outside. “What a surprise,” Jim murmured as they paused. “I had a sense we were never alone.”
Artemus drew himself up and glared at the trio, then waved his hand, indicating they should move aside for him. He saw some doubt on two of the faces, but the eldest stared back defiantly. He must have been the leader, because when he did not move, neither did the others.
“Want to take on three more, James?” he asked in a low voice. “Seems my godly powers do not extend to being allowed to stroll outside.”
“Another time. I’m pretty sure a couple of them were with Napota that first day,” Jim replied, turning away. As he did so, Lunata appeared in one of the several doors that opened off this room.
Her eyes opened wide in surprise as she bowed slightly. “Lord, you need help?”
Artemus smiled at her. “As a matter of fact, we were looking for you, Lunata. Will you come back to my room with us?”
She hesitated, glanced at the three guards then nodded. Jim and Artemus allowed her to lead the way, knowing that they very likely would have made a number of false moves had they attempted to go directly back to the room themselves. They were also certain that the three guards followed them, although again they remained out of sight.
Once they reached the room, Artemus made the request regarding talking to Radina. Lunata was immediately doubtful. Though improved, the old chief was very ill, could barely get off his couch. At Artie’s urging, she agreed to ask if Radina would see the Eagle God. Approximately an hour later, she returned to say that the chief would speak to Armahiga. But only Armahiga.
This disturbed Artemus. “I don't think we should split up, Jim.”
“Go ahead. It’s important. Good luck. I’ll be fine here by myself. I won’t get into any trouble, I promise.”
Ipsa se fraus, etiamsi initio cautior fueri t, detegit.
[Treachery, though at first very cautious, in the end betrays itself.]
— Annales (XLIV, 15), Titus Livy (59 BC-17 AD), Roman historian
Artemus followed Lunata back to his quarters, although he was pretty certain he could have found it himself this time. He had paid special attention to the route they had taken in the opposite direction to Radina’s rooms, counting the turns and noting the directions. Lunata had offered, however, and he accepted, suspecting she might want to speak to him. She had remained to translate during the meeting, and Artemus had seen the expression in her eyes when she began to realize that the Eagle God was trying to support Amanito.
Artie thought Radina realized this as well, but the old man had remained noncommittal regarding who he preferred to succeed him, even while agreeing to the plan of holding the election while he still lived. Artie had presented it in such a way to make Radina believe his presence would not only prevent friction between his sons, but also would give him an opportunity to tutor the heir-apparent. He almost seemed to gain strength from the notion, as though he felt he was useless in his waning days.
But the whole point was that Radina had agreed. The chief would call a council of elders—which Artemus learned included women like Antada—and present the idea. He would not promise that the council would agree, but did indicate that his backing could well sway them. They did not want a fratricidal dispute any more than he did.
When they pushed through the curtain over the doorway, Artemus halted, surprised. Jim had indicated he would remain here. Had he grown bored? They had been gone only a little more than an hour, Artie was sure.
“Where is… Jim?” Lunata inquired. They had persuaded her to use Jim’s given name. Much preferable, Jim especially felt, to “the evil one.”
“I don't know,” Artemus murmured, looking around. Nothing seemed to be displaced. The blankets on which Jim slept were mussed, but Jim had been sitting on them when Artie departed. He did not like the feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Someone must have overheard—or at least followed us.” Even if the conversation with Radina had not been not overheard, Napota would have realized it meant something—something he would not like. Undoubtedly the fact that Lunata had held a long meeting with the two outsiders had been reported… as well as the fact that Jim had been left alone.
“Where Jim go?” Lunata asked.
“I don't know. I think we’d better look for him.”
Jim West strained against his bonds, but knew it was futile. The leather was tough and tied securely. He was unsure where he was, other than not in his original cell. He had been gagged and blindfolded while slung over Incala’s shoulder as he was brought here. The blindfold and gag had been removed, but his wrists were tied behind him, his ankles lashed together. The stone cell was all but pitch dark, with only the faintest light creeping in through the doorway from a torch out in the hallway. He was aware that two men were sitting outside that doorway, and had been from the moment he had been dumped here. Although he had been unable to understand Napota’s words to his men, the intent was clear: the prisoner was not to escape.
He had been sprawled on the hard stone bed on the floor of the room he now shared with Artemus, half dozing as he waited for his partner’s return. Hearing footsteps outside the curtained doorway, he had lifted his head to see Amerta, Incala and two other men enter. The expressions on their faces told him all he needed to know, and he had jumped to his feet. This time, however, they did not come at him one at a time, and this time he had been overwhelmed, knocked to the floor, bound, gagged, and blindfolded.
The only thing he was certain about as far as the direction his captors took was that they turned in the opposite direction than usual once out in the corridor. Lunata had told Artemus, who mentioned it to Jim, that deeper corridors and rooms existed that had not been used in many, many years as the population declined.
Napota had been waiting near this little cell, grinning widely in the torchlight when the prisoner’s blindfold had been removed and had leaned down close to snarl words that did not need translation. They were a threat of some nature. Jim had a suspicion about the threat: Armahiga, whose name was mentioned several times by Napota, would support Napota or his friend the “evil one” would pay the penalty. Napota must have somehow learned of Artie’s meeting with Radina; whether or not he actually was aware of the subject of the meeting, Napota undoubtedly knew it could not be “good news” as far as he was concerned. He was smart enough to realize at the moment that the “evil one” was his principle weapon against the Eagle god—the god he had created himself.
Hearing voices out in the corridor, Jim waited. An argument of sorts appeared to be occurring. He was pretty sure he was hearing voices other than merely the two sentries, so someone must have approached. Friend or foe? The question was answered a moment later when Incala stepped into the doorway. The knife he held glinted in the dim torchlight from behind him. Jim saw the two guards standing just outside the doorway, obviously unsure of what to do. Incala appeared to still have status, even if he had lost in the arena.
“Nice looking knife,” Jim spoke mildly. “First steel weapon I’ve seen here. Don’t suppose that’s one you took from Artie’s bags. Kind of looks like one he owns. A gift from a friend of ours named American Knife. I have a similar one, but I left it back on the train.”
As he spoke he saw how Incala frowned, obviously at a loss about what was being said, perhaps also bemused by the casual tone. However, the Tatuma warrior recovered quickly, stepping forward to crouch down and extend the knife out so that it pointed just inches from Jim’s face. He growled some guttural words and shook the weapon threateningly.
Jim sat very still and kept his gaze direct on Incala’s face. “Do you think Napota will like it if you cut me up? He wants Armahiga’s cooperation, and that’s not going to happen if you harm me.”
He deliberately threw in the names that Incala would grasp and it worked, at least for the moment, as the knife was drawn back a few inches. More threatening snarls followed and again the gleaming knife neared Jim’s face. For a long moment, Incala did not move, simply glaring and holding that knife inches away, his eyes narrowing as he apparently was thinking things over.
Abruptly the knife dipped forward and before Jim could move, the tip stabbed into his cheek, below the right eye. Just a knick, but the unexpected sting caused Jim to gasp in pain, and then he felt the warm blood streaming down his face. Incala rose to his feet, grinning broadly. For the moment, he was the victor. No mistaking the triumph in the words he spat out just before spinning and departing. The two guards stared at Jim for a moment then resumed their places on either side of the door.
Jim leaned his head back against the rocky wall, exhaling a long breath. The cut was throbbing, and still bleeding. Not much he could do about it right now. What in the world had been Incala’s intent? Just a bit of vengeance for the defeat in the arena, or a promise of things to come? Jim was pretty sure Napota was smart enough to know he would have to have a live and mostly uninjured hostage to hold over “Armahiga’s” head. The mention of those names might have forestalled whatever Incala had in mind when he entered. For how long?
I don’t like the expression on Napota’s face!
Artemus stood silently at Radina’s side as the chief spoke solemnly to his gathered subjects. Both sons were on the other side of the old man, Amanito seeming bewildered if somewhat delighted and relieved at his father’s words, while Napota barely concealed a grin. Somehow this idea of an early election is suiting Napota just fine, and I have a sneaking suspicion I know why.
He, along with Lunata and Amanito, had been searching for Jim West when word came that Radina was assembling the population of the pueblo, and of course that meant his sons were required to be present. Because of the constant darkness of the interior of the cliff dwelling, Artie had not really been aware that morning had dawned until they returned to the large anteroom, which provided the exit to the outer world, where the sun was shining brightly.
The three of them had been going room by room, finding nothing but the residents of those rooms, if they were occupied, and dust and spiders if they were not. Lunata informed him that the complex consisted of “many, many homes.” She could not give him an exact number, but flashed her ten fingers several times. Artemus guessed they had not reached even a quarter the cells available. Splitting up was not an option because he probably would have become lost in the depths.
But Jim is in there somewhere, I’m certain of it. Especially after the looks Napota has been throwing toward me. Napota has Jim and plans to use him in an attempt to gain my cooperation, and support. That’s why he’s not the least disturbed by the announcement of the early selection process.
Artemus also saw how the assemblage continued to glance in his direction, often then looking back toward the statue. Were they seeing that the stranger was an exact reproduction of the figure, or were they now noticing the differences, as the two agents had last night? In either case, Artie had no doubt that Napota would exploit the similarities and convince any that might develop doubts.
The one who appeared unsettled was Titaca. The shaman listened with a deep frown, his eyes darting among the main participants, the two sons and “Armahiga.” Is he upset because he was not consulted? One thing occurred to Artemus, and that was that Titaca might believe he could “handle” the younger son better than the elder. His sister was probably going to marry the new chief, whichever brother it turned out to be, but chances were, Napota would use that against Titaca, rather than vice-versa.
The chief announced that the election was to be held late this afternoon, The people would hear a signal to gather and cast their votes. As Radina was taken back to his quarters, his sons supporting him, Lunata came to Artemus and translated all that had been said. “I thought Napota not be happy,” she said, puzzled.
“I’m pretty sure he has Jim hidden somewhere, Lunata, and plans to use him as a hostage against me so that I will support him. I have to find Jim. We must continue to conduct a search ourselves, and not involve anyone else. I know that Napota has friends among the young men, and I don’t want anyone hurt over this.”
Jim was surprised that Napota brought Titaca to the room where he was being held. The startled expression on the shaman’s face when he entered the cell indicated his astonishment as well. He had not known about the kidnapping. He spoke rapidly to Napota, who just grinned widely and said something that both angered and cowed Titaca. Napota spoke further, gesturing toward the bound man and finally Titaca turned toward Jim.
“Napota say you must remain here until after new chief named.”
Jim frowned. “Has Radina died?” He did not want either man to be aware of his participation concerning the plan for the early election just yet.
“No. Radina live. When sun fall toward earth to rest, the people will choose new chief. Radina will teach new chief. Armahiga say it is good. Armahiga must tell people to choose Napota.”
“Or I will die.”
The shaman nodded grimly. Jim gazed at him for a long moment. Clearly the shaman was conflicted. He wanted to be part of the elite, yet he also undoubtedly was aware that Napota was going to be a stronger leader than Radina was, or that Amanito might initially be. A powerful ruthless chief such as Napota would minimize Titaca’s influence.
“You must act,” Jim said, choosing his words carefully, and keeping his expression mild. “You must tell the Eagle God where to find me.” He did not want to mention Armahiga, or even Artemus's name, unsure whether Napota knew the god’s true name.
With his back to Napota, Titaca did not need to be as cautious with his expression, but he also chose his words guardedly. “I would die. He would know who told god.”
“Not if you are very smart, and I think you are.”
Napota broke in then, grabbing Titaca by the shoulder and obviously demanding to know what was being said. Whatever the shaman then told him must have seemed reasonable, and Napota accepted it. He also apparently gave Titaca another message to relay to the prisoner.
“Napota say you will die at hands of Incala. Incala very angry.”
“I got that idea,” Jim replied grimly. He knew his face was streaked with the dried blood; the small wound still occasionally stung.
Titaca suddenly smiled. “I know who tell.”
Jim did not have opportunity to question, as the pair departed. What the devil is he thinking about? I hope he’s not too clever for his own good—and mine.
A weary Artemus Gordon rapidly ate the food Lunata had brought him. She had had to convince him to stop and eat. He knew he needed nourishment, but he also felt that he had no time to spare in finding Jim. I am sure that Napota has him, and that Napota intends to use Jim against me—but I cannot risk the possibility that I’m wrong, that perhaps Incala or one of the other gladiators Jim defeated in the arena has taken him. In that case, it might be too late already…
Artie physically shook his head. Incala would not have kidnapped Jim, but—given the opportunity—would have killed him and left his body for all to see. Napota has him and will try to use Jim’s safety to control me.
Lunata had found four trusted young men to assist in the search. Two had gone outside the complex to search the nearby canyons, while the other pair roamed through the hive of corridors and cells. Artie had learned that not even the residents knew the entire complex. As youngsters, their parents had warned them against going into the depths.
The Tatuma did not have a word for “ghost” in their language, but they definitely believed in some sort of spirits from the afterlife, and that those spirits haunted the depths where members of their tribe had once lived… and died. Quite possibly the parents emphasized those haunts to discourage their children from wandering, lest they were lost forever. Legends spoke of children who had suffered that fate. Though the two searching the interior were being thorough, they were also moving slowly, still hampered by the warnings of their parents and their own superstitions.
Artemus had just put his bowl aside when the curtain over his doorway pushed aside, admitting Napota, with Titaca at his heels. Crossing his arms on his chest and putting on a stern face, Artie got to his feet, not liking the gleam he was seeing in Napota’s dark eyes. Fastening that glittering gaze on the Eagle god, Napota spoke rapidly in his own tongue to the shaman. Artie had come to recognize the Tatuma word for “evil one,” and knew that this was going to be about Jim. He also saw the misery on Titaca’s face as he turned to face him.
“Lord, the chief’s son bids me tell you… he say, evil one is prisoner and will die.”
“If I don’t support him as the choice for the new chief today.”
“Do you know where my friend is being held?”
The hesitation immediately put Titaca’s next words in doubt. “No, lord. He is… I know he lives. Now.”
“Thank you. Tell Napota that if he harms my friend I will bring great destruction on him. I swear it.”
With widened eyes, Titaca translated. Artemus almost smiled as he noted the momentary alarm in Napota’s eyes. It vanished quickly then, as he must have remembered that the Eagle God was his own creation and had no special powers. He rattled off something.
“Napota say he not fear Armahiga.”
Artie kept his visage stern as he spoke. “Does Titaca know that I am a man, not a god?”
Titaca’s chin dropped to his chest, eyes down. “Yes, lord.”
“I am a man, but I am a strong man. Warn Napota that if he harms me, or my friend, others will come to search for us. He and the Tatuma could be destroyed.”
Titaca plainly did not want to translate this, but he did. Once again, Napota’s gaze flickered. But he was a confident man right now, feeling that he held all the cards—although Artemus had not noticed any sign that the Tatuma knew anything about playing poker! The shaman then translated Napota’s parting words.
“If Napota is not chosen as the new chief, the evil one will never see the sun again.”
Artemus sat down, heaving a noisy sigh. Problem is, he does hold all the cards now. He has Jim and I don't know where Jim is! How can I find him in this labyrinth before election time? Chances were that Jim was being heavily guarded this time, and probably kept bound. Napota was not a completely stupid man. Artie knew he could not take the chance that Napota would realize that if he killed Jim, he would lose control over Armahiga completely, regardless of the outcome of the vote. Napota was power-hungry and men like him did not always think clearly under the influence of the rage of defeat.
Lunata pushed through the curtain then, an odd expression on her face. For one instant Artie was sure she was bringing bad news, but quickly realized that she was unsure about something, not dreading to give him the news. “What is it, Lunata?”
“My lord…” She glanced behind her at the still swaying woven curtain before looking at Artie again. He had tried to convince her to address him by his real name, but she adamantly refused because she was not yet convinced he was not the Eagle God.
“What is it, Lunata?” he repeated urgently but in a soft, encouraging voice.
“My lord… Tabuna… he want talk.”
“To me?” Artie was astonished. Tabuna had been the first of the fighters defeated and humiliated by Jim in the contest, the youngest of the trio. What was this about? “All right.”
Lunata pulled the curtain back and the young fighter stepped in. His chin still bore the bruise from Jim’s blow. Plainly he was awed and more than a little nervous to be in the presence of Armahiga, but he straightened his shoulders and spoke rapidly. Artie saw Lunata’s eyes widen. She had not known the reason for the youth’s visit, and now she was astonished.
“What did he say?” Artie clipped.
“My lord… he say he know where find Jim.”
Artie grabbed Tabuna’s shoulders. “Where?” He quickly saw that he was terrorizing the boy, so he stepped back, and spoke more quietly. “Where is my friend?”
Lunata translated the words, and after swallowing a couple of times, Tabuna spoke. “He say Jim way deep—deep in caves. Incala men guard him.”
Artie frowned. “Did Incala take him?”
Lunata asked the question then turned to Artie. “Tabuna not know. He say… someone tell him.”
Lunata shook her head. “He no say. Say man tell him.”
Artemus let out a long breath. He had a decision to make. Was Tabuna’s story true? Or was it a trap? He could not see Napota wanting to harm him yet. Not when he planned to use the Eagle God’s influence to sway the election in his favor. I don't think I really have a choice. If Jim is hidden deep in this maze, Tabuna may be the only one who can lead me to him. Wish I had a gun!
“Will Tabuna take me to the hiding place?”
He saw the youth shake his head adamantly as soon as Lunata translated the query. She turned to Artemus. “Tabuna say he tell where. Cannot go.”
Artie did not smile, though he felt like it. This young man who had gained victories and a reputation as a fighter in the arena at a very early age still feared the supposed spirits in the depths of the pueblo. “All right. Can he draw a map?”
Not an exact map, but Tabuna was able to sketch on the earthen floor the twists and turns that must be taken. With no paper to copy it onto, Artie knew he had to memorize it, made even more difficult with the realization that it was not to scale, showing only the passageways one must follow, not their length, and possibly not where other passages might bisect them.
Artemus thanked Tabuna and asked one more question. “Will you tell Armahiga who gave you the information?”
Once again Tabuna refused to answer, although Artie could see that he was terrorized by the possibility of displeasing the Eagle God. Now Artemus tried to put the young man at ease by smiling and patting his shoulder, thanking him again. Tabuna again froze for an instant, then bowed low and scurried from the room.
“Lunata,” Artie said then, “please help me learn this map that Tabuna drew. It would be better if we both studied it.”
For one instant, he thought she was going to refuse, or at least try to beg off, but after a moment, she simply nodded, and knelt by the dusty sketch. For several minutes, both of them gazed at the drawing. Finally Lunata sat back.
“Do you know it?” Artemus asked.
“Yes, lord. I know place.”
The grim fear in her dark eyes was not encouraging, but at least she did not hesitate, getting to her feet with him. Artie scrubbed the floor with his foot, erasing the map, just in case anyone entered the cell while he was absent. Tabuna might have been seen entering or leaving.
He then turned to the young woman. “Lunata, I do not wish to force you to do this. Jim is my friend and I must help him.”
Now she smiled. “I see you like him much. When I am child, I fall into… into hole in ground. You know, water fill up bad rain?” When Artemus nodded, suspecting she meant a ravine, Lunata continued. “Amanito, he save me. He hurt his arm, but he save me from water. We are friends. I care much for him. I would save Amanito if he need help.”
“It’s like that,” Artie nodded. “Jim is my brother. He would do anything for me, and I’ll do anything for him. I must save him from Napota.”
Lunata just smiled and led the way out into the passageway. Fortunately, it was empty, and they were able to reach the area that led into the depths of the mazes without interference, although they did encounter a pair of women carrying bowls of dried corn. The women just bowed and backed away. They certainly did not wish to impede the passage of the god Armahiga!
Napota realizes that he can use Jim as a wedge against me, Artie mused as they headed toward the warren of tunnels. Jim is an enemy now that needs to be disposed of, but Napota should know that without Jim, he might lose any hold over me. He won’t kill Jim right away… but past history indicates Napota has no problem using force!
In any case, Artemus knew the best place for Jim was with him. His status as a “god” might protect both of them for a while at least. He did not like deluding these people, but if that was what was necessary to keep them alive, so be it. They could make it right later.
Both Artemus and Lunata took torches from wall sconces near the entrance to the deeper passages, using them to illuminate the way. The light from the flames did not extend very far ahead so it was necessary to move rather slowly, watching for the turns that Tabuna had indicated in his scratching in the dirt.
Sure hope that sketch was reasonably accurate, or that Lunata knows her way to some extent. A man could be lost forever in this maze!
The tunnels seemed to grow darker and damper the deeper they went. Spiders and other unseen creatures skittered ahead of the torchlight. A deathly silence pervaded the area as well. Lunata whispered that to her knowledge, no one had lived in this area for several generations, but at one time the Tatuma population had been large enough to fill all these cells. Although she was uncertain, she agreed with Artemus that the arrival of the Spanish and their diseases might have helped decimate the population, as had occurred with numerous native tribes. No tribal legends spoke to possible battles with the explorers.
After about an hour, Artie began to wonder. Had Tabuna lied? Or even simply been mistaken regarding where Jim was being held? He also was concerned whether he and the young woman would be able to find their way back to the populated area of the complex! He considered turning back. However, because of the depth of the darkness and the uncertainty, their progress was extremely slow, and Artie knew they had not yet reached the final passageway in Tabuna’s map.
“There!” Lunata whispered suddenly, pointing.
Up ahead, at the entrance of another tunnel that turned to the left, a light glowed. Artemus carefully backed away and put his own torch on the floor inside the gaping door of a dark room, then whispered to Lunata to remain with the lights while he went ahead. Unknowing whether anyone else would be with Jim—if indeed the light indicated human presence—he needed to proceed cautiously and as quietly as possible. He hated leaving the torch behind, but also knew that as they had noted the illumination ahead, someone might see the approach of another light.
He crept forward, taking one step at a time and being careful where he put his feet, trying to discern whether something like a noisy stone might be under his boot sole before putting his entire weight on it. He also found himself holding his breath and almost had to remind himself to inhale and exhale. Finally he reached the edge of the opening to the tunnel and carefully peered around.
The torch placed in a wall sconce clearly revealed two men seated outside the opening into another cell. One’s head was completely down on his chest, apparently asleep; the other was stretching and yawning as Artie pulled his own head back. Two good-sized bruisers. If Jim’s in there and not tied up, no problem. But he knew that Jim was probably securely bound. Napota had made the mistake of leaving the “evil one” unfettered the previous time he had him as a prisoner.
He considered using one of the gas pellets secreted in the buttons of his jacket but quickly cast that notion aside. In such close quarters, he himself would be affected, not to mention Jim. I need to separate them. To that end, he crouched down, scrabbling on the floor with his fingers in the dark until he found several pebbles.
He threw the first one into the tunnel where the guards were and was rewarded with a muttered query. The fear he heard in the tone gave him a new idea. Before tossing the next stone, he made a growling sound deep in his throat. This time the response was louder, and obviously the alert man was rousing his friend. Artie waited until he heard the other man’s voice, then threw another stone, this time down the same corridor he was in—and growled again, slightly louder.
Playing a hunch, Artie rose and quickly returned to Lunata, telling her to take the torches and move far back into the room to lessen the visibility of the light from those flames. He moved back to his place by the other corridor, hearing the two men speaking in anxious tones. He threw another stone, and growled even louder, then spoke German in guttural tones. He was actually reciting a poem he knew, but those two men did not know that. All they heard was pure evil. Only seconds were required for them to grab their own torch and flee down the passage toward safety, not even noticing either the man crouched in the tunnel or the faint light emanating from doorway a short distance off.
“Jim?” Artie spoke in a low voice as he straightened.
“Artie! In here!”
“Wait until I get a light.”
He fetched both the torches and Lunata and returned to the cell, where he found his friend on the floor, leather straps securing his arms and legs, including around his knees and chest. Napota was taking no chances whatsoever. He knelt down. “You all right?” In the torchlight he could see the streaks of dried blood on Jim’s face.
“Yeah, pretty good. Got a knife?”
“No, damn it. Lunata, can you help?”
The process was laborious, for the knots in the leather were tight. Not only that, Artemus could heard the seconds ticking away in his head. The two guards would reach the inhabited area and tell about hearing the spirits. Some would believe him, others, like Napota, would not. Especially if Napota checked the Eagle God’s quarters and found him gone. I have no idea how much time we have, but I’m sure it’s not nearly enough!
He finally picked the knot on Jim’s wrists enough to loosen it. Once his arms were free, Jim was able to shrug the bands around his chest up over his head, then helped Artie and Lunata with the others. As they worked, Jim related how he had been jumped in the room, and also about his visitors.
“I got the notion that Titaca has had enough. Is he the one who told you where I was?”
Jim frowned. “Tabuna? He was never here.”
“Titaca tell him,” Lunata spoke firmly. “My brother—he sorry. Frightened.” She nodded firmly, as if confirming earlier thoughts she had had.
“When Titaca was here,” Jim said quietly, “I wasn’t sure if I actually convinced him to defy Napota or not. I hope it’s true that Napota knows no English.”
“Napota say white man’s words bad medicine,” Lunata supplied. “He not learn. He angry others learn. Say no.”
“Bet he’s glad you know enough to translate for him with us,” Artie commented. “But of course that’s why Amanito and Titaca hide their knowledge,” Artie nodded. “We’d better get moving, Jim.” He held out his hand to pull his partner to his feet.
“Where to?” Jim flexed his stiff muscles and massaged the sore redness on his wrists.
That gave Artie pause. He shook his head. “I am not sure. Napota is determined to control the Eagle god. He was holding you hostage so that I would tell the people to vote for him. I think he’s thought far enough ahead to realize that if he does kill you, he’ll lose his hold over me. At least for the moment.”
“Unless he threatens other Tatuma,” Jim said softly. He put a hand on his partner’s arm. “Artie, what we really need to do is get out of here and leave these people to their lives.”
“I know,” Artie sighed. “I know.” He caught his partner’s gaze in the torchlight, and saw that Jim understood as well as he did. Nothing had changed. They could not depart until this business was settled. “The election is today. I have no idea of the time right now—but we’d better be there.” In his heart, he knew that even if Napota lost the election that would not be the end of it.
Without further words, they started back down the dark tunnels, keeping their ears tuned for the approach of anyone who might be a problem. At one point they thought they did hear footsteps, and ducked into one of the dank and dusty cells, but after a few minutes decided they had heard the echo of their own movements.
Jim saw how Lunata was becoming more and more nervous as they approached the populated area of the complex. He felt sorry for her, even while being extremely grateful for her assistance, and knew that he and his partner would do whatever they could to protect her. She was pretty much in the middle of everything, beginning with the fact that she was in love with one brother but might be forced to marry the other. Jim knew that if Napota did win a fair election, they could not intervene. But they needed to ensure that the vote was indeed “fair” and legal according to tribal laws.
Above all, he wondered about Titaca. Was the shaman truly repenting his support of Napota? Or was his “assistance” the prelude to some kind of trap? What I wouldn’t give for some kind of weapon!
Jim stopped Artie. “I just remembered—I still have some explosive putty in my boot heels.”
Artemus frowned. “I have a few gas buttons on my jacket as well. I didn’t use it in the tunnels because of the close quarters.”
Jim nodded, comprehending. “Probably the same elsewhere in this complex. Just as a last resort, Artie.”
“Yeah.” Artie knew that if it came to using the explosives or the gas to save one of their lives, or the lives of any of the Tatuma, they would.
The aroma of food and human habitation, as well as a murmur of voices, warned them when they were nearing the inhabited area of the complex. Artie asked Lunata to go ahead of them to see whether Napota or any of his supporters were in view. She returned in a few minutes to say that while people were chattering among themselves, primarily about the report of a demon in the tunnels, all was clear. Napota was not present, nor any of his minions. Could be they were gathered somewhere wondering what to do about this new threat. How could they return to the prisoner if an evil spirit roamed the tunnels?
The trio walked swiftly out into the open, through the atrium where the god’s statue rested, and down the passage toward Radina’s home. The few people visible watched them with some interest, but no particular alarm. This was Armahiga, after all. The Eagle God could travel where and when he pleased as far as they were concerned, and perhaps he would even be able to conquer the malicious presence in the darkness.
A number of people, including Amanito and Titaca were in the chief’s quarters, obviously preparing for the upcoming vote. They were sorting black and white pebbles, and two large urns rested in the middle of the first room. This was where the election would take place. Titaca cast one glance their direction then busied himself, turning his back partially to them. He did not want anyone to spot his guilt, obviously.
Amanito got to his feet, however, and came over to speak to Lunata. Jim could see that the pair desperately wanted to touch, if only to hold hands. But they did not. Lunata obviously told the younger prince of what had just occurred. He looked at both white men then jerked his head to lead them toward a small room to one side, which appeared to be a storeroom of some sort, filled with bowls of corn and other foodstuffs.
“Napota say I must give up,” Amanito spoke in a low voice. “He say Eagle God tell people to cast their stones for him.”
“No,” Artie replied. “Not now. Amanito, you must be aware that I am not an actual god. I am a man, like you.”
Amanito nodded quickly. “Yes, but no can tell people. They be…” He sought a word. “Frighten?”
They knew what he meant. Not exactly frightened to learn that the figure they thought was a god was mortal, but definitely confused. In a sense that might work in Napota’s favor, Artie decided.
“I won’t tell anyone until after the election,” he said. “I want to be sure this vote is honest and fair.”
Now Lunata did grasp her sweetheart’s wrist. “Amanito win.”
“I have a feeling you are right,” Artie replied. “But as long as we know that no one was threatened or harmed, the results must be accepted regardless of the winner.”
Hearing a commotion in the larger room, they returned to find Radina being carried in by two young men. They placed him on a blanket-swathed stone chair and placed robes over his body. He looked very frail, but his voice was strong as he began to address the people gathering outside his quarters, waiting for the opening of the procedure to elect a new chief.
Lunata whispered a brief translation. Radina was telling them that he had decided to hold the election early, while breath remained in his body, so that he could help the new chief begin his reign. He told them to cast their votes without fear, to follow their hearts. Then he looked toward the Eagle God. Though he did not dare peremptorily summon the god to his side, his expression plainly revealed that was his request.
Artemus jerked his head at Jim, and they both moved across the room. Artemus stood alongside the chief, while Jim stepped a few paces away. Lunata came forward at Artie’s gesture. He was about to speak through her when more commotion erupted outside the room—and Napota charged in. He stopped short, staring at Jim, who gazed back with cold green eyes.
“Tell them this,” Artie said to Lunata. “Tell them that Armahiga sent spirits to seek out his friend in the dark empty tunnels where he had been lost. Those followers of Armahiga found Jim West and brought him to me. Tell them that Jim West is Armahiga’s brother and no harm is to come to him.”
Though Lunata appeared startled, she spoke in a clear voice. Wide eyes and murmurs of astonishment and what seemed to Artie to be approval rippled through the assemblage. Radina called to his sons and they took positions beside him, opposite where the god was located. Artie and Jim did not fail to notice that Napota made sure he was closest to their father.
Radina spoke again, and this time Lunata translated that he wanted Armahiga to give his blessing to the voting. “I was hoping for that,” Artie murmured toward Jim. Then he directed his words toward the crowd, knowing that Lunata would translate. “My friends, I am happy to be here at this important time. Radina is a brave man, knowing the end of his steps on this earth are coming to an end, but also wanting to leave his people in the hands of a wise man. It is your chance to choose this wise man, so that the change will be smooth and in harmony. As Radina told you, make your selection wisely, listen to your hearts. Do not fear. Armahiga and his friend Jim West will be here to make sure that all remains peaceful.” We hope.
Neither man missed how gazes went toward the younger son, and neither did Napota. He scowled, but remained quiet. Jim gazed toward Napota. He’s probably working on a scheme to dispose of his brother if Amanito is chosen. He would be the successor, obviously. He may also be considering the best way to rid himself of the Eagle God without bringing the wrath of the Tatuma on his head!
The ritual began. Each of the voters, men and women, were given a black stone and a white stone. It was up to them to secrete the stones in the proper hand, and then to drop the stones in the urns, one marked with symbols representing Napota, the other for Amanito. They reached their hands deep into the jars so that no one could see the color they placed in each one. Except for the shuffling of feet and then the clink of the stone dropped in the jars, all was quiet.
Titaca stood between the jars, his arms folded, face very solemn. To Artie, at least, he did not appear threatening, and none of the voters seemed to be affected by his presence. A normal ritual, he judged. He had not been told, but he assumed votes were taken for other matters affecting the community. They expected the shaman to be guarding the urns.
One thing Jim noticed was the men who were under Napota’s thrall. Several of them, including Incala, threw assuring glances toward their leader as they cast their votes, but others refused to look at him. He had to wonder if those men were actually voting for the younger brother, perhaps looking for a way to free themselves. Incala also had time for a black glare in Jim’s direction, a glare that Jim returned. I have a feeling that it’s not completely over between us. He did not lift a hand to the cut on his cheek, but it seemed to sting anew.
Artemus counted about fifty adults who voted. As the last one cast a ballot, he whispered to Lunata. “What next?”
“The elders count the stones. You stay?”
“If Radina wishes.”
Her question to the chief caused a bit of a stir. Radina did, it seemed, want the god present during the vote count. Napota did not object to that; however, he insisted it would not be right for the Eagle God’s friend, the “evil one” to be there. When Lunata translated all this, Artie started to protest, but Jim put a hand on his arm.
“Do it. Radina might back down under Napota’s demands and not allow you in there either. You need to be to make sure all is on the up and up.”
Artie glanced toward the open doorway where the citizens were now waiting the announcement of the vote count. He could see Incala and Amerta among them, and Incala continued to shoot angry looks in Jim’s direction. Jim looked as well, and read his partner’s thoughts.
“I’ll stay right here like a good little boy.”
“I’ll give you a lollipop,” Artie retorted. He knew he could not do otherwise than follow the chief’s wishes, even if his overly ambitious son was influencing them. To demand Jim’s presence during the counting would upset everyone right now.
Titaca and another man carried the urns into another interior room. The second man then retreated, but Titaca remained, along with Radina, the Eagle God and several older men and women. Artie stood back and watched as the urns were emptied onto blankets, well separated from each other. The results were startlingly evident, even before an official count.
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
SS senior field agent
Posted - 01/01/2012 : 16:37:21
Envy may justly be called "the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity"; it is the most acid fruit that grows on the stock of sin, a fluid so subtle that nothing but the fire of divine love can purge it from the soul.
— Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), American clergyman and founder of "Universalism"
Although he felt reasonably secure as long as most of the Tatuma population lingered outside the chief’s chambers waiting for the results, Jim did not let his guard down. Amanito sat near him, appearing relatively calm, while Napota paced around, staring hard at the blanket-draped door to the room where the counting was taking place. Jim could see that Napota was itching to at least eavesdrop, but with so many witnesses he did not dare. Lunata sat quietly in a corner near the outer door.
Twice Napota went to that outer door to speak to Incala and his other followers. Each time Incala turned a dark glance Jim’s direction. Of the three that Jim had defeated in combat, Incala took the fall the hardest. Amerta did not like him, that was certain, but he did not appear to have built up a hatred and need for vengeance. Perhaps it was due to the ages of the men. Incala had been at the top for a long time; for him to regain that pinnacle now would be more difficult than it would for Amerta and Tabuna.
Close to an hour elapsed before Titaca appeared from the counting room, followed by Radina, supported by two of the elders, Artemus, and the remaining elders. Radina was made comfortable, and after some quiet conversation among the chief, the shaman, and the others, Titaca turned to face the two brothers who had taken their place facing their father.
Titaca began speaking, and it was obvious he had a long, ritualistic speech to make before the official announcement. Artie caught Jim’s eye and nodded almost imperceptibly. Jim did not smile, but he knew what that nod meant: Amanito would be the next chief. Now to see what Napota does. That the elder brother would accept the defeat was unlikely. The real question was what actions he would take. Would he do something immediately, or be smart enough to wait until the “Eagle God” and his friend departed?
Titaca finally came to the big moment. He turned and accepted an ornate necklace comprised of various stones from Radina then stepped in front of the two pretenders, his gaze focused on a spot between them. Again he began an apparently ritualistic speech, but it was much shorter. He finally turned slightly and placed the necklace over Amanito’s shoulders.
Those in the doorway who could see the ceremony quickly relayed the news to those behind them. The cheers and laughter revealed how the population felt about the results. Amanito’s first action had been to turn toward Lunata, who came to her feet, radiant with joy, but she remained near the door. As Napota glowered, Amanito then knelt before his father, who placed a hand on his head and spoke.
No need for a translator for that, Artie mused. Despite he wanted to be fair, Radina knew which of his sons would be the better leader for his people. Napota would have been a tyrant. Radina was giving his blessing and undoubtedly telling Amanito that as long as his spirit was on the earth, he would be there to help his son.
Artemus stepped over alongside Jim. “Now what?”
“Not sure. Napota has been giving his boys orders. He likely won’t do anything immediately.”
“He’s in a fix,” Artie decided. “He can’t kill you without losing his hold over me. He can’t kill me. Gods don’t die. And I’m sure he still hopes to hold Armahiga to his side in some manner.”
“You really believe he’s thinking that rationally?”
“That I don't know,” Artie sighed. “But I suspect that Amanito is in more danger than we are at the moment.”
“My thoughts exactly. What do you suppose the new chief would say to a couple of full-time bodyguards?”
Artie was able to pose that idea to the new chief at the ceremonial dinner, where, as the Eagle God, he was seated alongside Amanito. Amanito at first did not want to believe his brother would harm him. Nonetheless, even he could not deny that Napota’s stares were less than brotherly.
“The true crowning ceremony is not for two days,” Artemus reminded him. “Until then, you are only the elected chief. If something should happen to you in that time, the title would automatically go to Napota. Am I right?”
Amanito nodded. “Yes. When Amanito… real chief, I die, no more brother.”
Artie considered that. We cannot remain with the Tatuma forever. The Tatuma history and rules of succession did not provide for someone out of the royal lineage to vie for the throne, except perhaps by usurping it. Such a takeover did not seem to be in their makeup as a population.
One truly positive result of the election was that Amanito felt free to reveal to the agents where not only their horses were being kept, but their weapons. They procured the guns from a hidden hole behind the statue of Armahiga, but did not strap the belts on, taking only the small guns they could secrete inside their coats. Amanito assured them that the horses were well, and being cared for. Darkness had fallen so they decided to wait until morning to check on the steeds.
“I say we set a time limit,” Artie suggested as they returned to Artie’s former quarters to pick up their blankets and any other items left there.
“Time limit? How so?”
“We can’t stay here forever, but perhaps we can give the impression that we intend to. If Napota thinks that, he may be forced to act.”
“And kill one or both of us.”
Artie laughed. “Hopefully not!” He sobered. “I do think he’s more likely to try to harm Amanito now, possibly before the coronation. That would simplify things for him. As blood kin, and the runner-up, he automatically assumes the throne.”
“Which is why we are going to be sticking to Amanito like tarpaper.”
“Yep. And which is likely to make Napota hang back.”
Jim paused as he picked up the bundle of blankets. “I hope the beds in Amanito’s quarters are more comfortable.”
“I doubt it.” Artie shot a grin toward his partner. Jim had certainly had the worst of it since their arrival at this hidden pueblo. “Maybe another blanket or two to soften the mattress.”
Jim just sighed. Even bedrolls at a campsite were more comfortable than these stone slabs. “Artie, you’re going to have to make yourself more clear. Napota won’t act if we’re nearby.”
“That’s not exactly true, Jim. Napota still has some followers, though I suspect a few might feel free to drift away now. I’m thinking of Incala. If looks could kill, I’d be planning your funeral now.”
“So… you want me to act as bait?”
“Only because I have every confidence in you, James.” Artie’s brown eyes twinkled mischievously; he then sobered. “Napota is not going to kill me. Not yet. If he’s smart, he won’t try to harm you either. At least not until he attains what he wants. But he may not be able to control Incala as well as he thinks. If you can keep Incala busy…”
“He won’t have time to think about following any orders to kill Amanito.”
“You know Napota is not going to do it himself.” Artie shook his head in disgust. They had encountered numerous men and women over the years that hated and envied others to the point that they wanted those others dead. Most of the time they had others do their killing for them.
They carried their gear back to Amanito’s quarters. Neither were too surprised to find he had company in the form of Titaca and Lunata. Titaca was ingratiating himself. That was obvious even without understanding the Tatuma tongue he was using. Lunata was merely enjoying being with the man she loved, with the knowledge that the way was clear for them to wed.
She did turn to Artemus, eyes clouded with concern. “You are not unhappy that I wish to marry Amanito?”
Artie smiled. “I say that Amanito is one lucky fellow, Lunata. If circumstances were different, I might even challenge him for you. But I have a lady I love very much waiting for me elsewhere. I can only wish you great happiness.” He could see that she was still unsure whether he was god or mortal.
Napota appeared in the doorway and halted, apparently startled to find others with his brother. As he entered and began what seemed to be a congratulatory speech to his victorious brother, Jim casually stepped to the open doorway and glanced out into the passage. No astonishment to find Incala and two other men lingering out there. Incala muttered something, his eyes blazing with hatred toward Jim. Jim just nodded, half smiling, as he stepped back into the room, knowing that doing so would only inflame the warrior. And that’s the point, according to Artie’s plans: keep him focused on me.
Under the noisy bombast of Napota and the nervous assurances of Titaca, Artie was having a conversation with Lunata. Jim moved over there and Artie looked at him. “Lunata tells me that Napota is congratulating his brother and promising to support him.”
“That’s what I thought,” Jim spoke dryly. “I don’t know what the Tatuma equivalent of having fingers crossed behind one’s back is, but I’m sure Napota is doing it.”
While Lunata may not have completely grasped his meaning, she understood. “Napota not happy. I fear he harm Amanito.”
Artie patted her shoulder. “That’s why we are going to be staying close to Amanito, Lunata. We will protect him.”
Napota now turned his attention to the great god and his companion. He spoke rapidly, a smile pasted on his face. Lunata listened with widened eyes, then translated. Napota, she said, was apologizing for his previous behavior. He knew he was very wrong to imprison Armahiga’s friend, but he did it because he feared that the green-eyed man was indeed evil. He believed he was protecting not only his people, but Armahiga himself. Napota begged Armahiga’s forgiveness.
Artie listened gravely then instructed Lunata to say that Armahiga understood and as long as Napota did not attempt to harm Armahiga’s friend again, all would be well. As Napota undoubtedly was aware, the man he called the “evil one” had some powers of his own, having defeated three of the Tatuma’s best fighters.
Napota had difficulty maintaining his friendly demeanor with this last reminder. However, he bowed slightly to Armahiga and departed. Jim took the time to return to the doorway in order to watch Napota and his followers retreat down the passageway toward the atrium. He then turned back to the others.
“Where is Napota’s quarters?”
Both Lunata and Amanito pointed in the opposite direction from where he had just seen Napota go. With a glance at his partner, Jim strode out of the room and into the tunnel. Once there he headed in the direction Napota had gone. As he approached the opening into the anteroom, he slowed. The tunnel was dimly illuminated as most citizens were in their quarters preparing for the night.
A peek into the room where the statue of Armahiga resided revealed it to be empty. Jim cautiously moved into that room, listening. Where had the men gone? The other tunnels that opened off this room led to the homes of other residents, and then back into the depths of unused areas. He reached inside his coat and drew out the small pistol, holding it so that his hand covered most of it.
Hearing a sound behind him, Jim spun then relaxed as he recognized the dim form of his partner. “Decided to give the lovebirds some time alone,” Artie commented. “What’s going on?”
“Not certain. Napota and his pals came this way, but I don't know where they went.”
“Maybe. But if that’s the case, I don't think it’s a good idea to follow them out there.”
“I wholeheartedly agree, James. Could be he knew you would follow and it’s a trap. I suggest we retreat back to Amanito’s quarters and get some rest on our downy mattresses.”
Nec deus intersit nisi dignus vindice nodus.
[Nor let a god come in, unless the difficulty be worthy of such an intervention.]
—Ars Poetica (CXCI), Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus; 65-8 BC), Roman poet
As he awakened in the dimness, hearing the usual noises that indicated morning had arrived, Artemus wondered if he could ever get accustomed to residing in a structure like the Tatuma pueblo, never seeing daylight unless he went out onto the ledge and perhaps participated in some of the outdoor activities like tending the garden, hunting, bringing water. But the people who lived here had known only this type of life since their births. They did not expect to see the sun shining through their windows, nor feel fresh air on their faces if they opened a door or window.
Not much longer, he hoped. They had had a long conversation with Amanito and Lunata after returning to Amanito’s quarters to make certain he understood that his half brother still posed a danger to him. Amanito was reluctant, but he admitted that he knew his hopes his brother was truly happy for him were wishful thinking. Napota had coveted their father’s power for years. To be thwarted now was unacceptable.
“And to think,” Jim had commented later when Amanito was asleep in the small room that was his bedroom, “if Napota had not engaged in the trickery of claiming you were the Eagle God, we might have traveled on and he would have been free to indulge his ambitions.”
“Lesser men than him have made such errors,” Artie had replied, stifling a yawn in the darkness.
Now as he pulled on his boots while sitting on the blankets, he could only wonder what the elder brother would be up to next. Napota probably realized that his only way to control Armahiga was to control the god’s friend. Jim is the one in danger, if not from immediate death, at least of capture. When would they know it was safe to leave the Tatuma and head on toward Albuquerque? Artie knew that he would be haunted by the thoughts that Napota perpetrated a coup as soon as they were gone, and he suspected Jim felt the same way. Somehow they had to make Napota understand that consequences would befall him.
But how? These people were all but beyond the law of the Territory of New Mexico. Artemus also knew they could not and should not reveal this location to authorities or anyone else. Somehow the Tatuma had remained hidden for centuries. Announcing their presence and location would destroy them.
Apparently hearing his movements, Jim stirred in his blankets, turned onto this back and stretched his arms above his head. “I must be getting used to this luxuriously soft mattress. Slept pretty well.”
Artie chuckled. “You’re going to be spoiled for the bunks in the varnish car, or a hotel bed.”
“I’ll risk it.” Jim sat up and reached for his boots. “I thought of something last night, Artie.”
“When Napota and his pals left and seemed to go outside, they may have been going after the horses.”
Artie blinked, startled. “Why didn’t you say something? We should have…”
Jim was shaking his head. “He’s not going to harm the horses. For one thing, Blackjack wouldn’t let him near enough, and he doesn’t know how to use a gun.”
“I think he would have used one by now if that was the case. But they may have moved—or at least tried to move—the horses.”
“So that we can’t leave,” Artie said slowly, his frown deepening. “Does that make sense? I would think at this point he would not mind if we left him to his own devices… and machinations.”
Jim shook his head again. “Napota has a one-track mind. He’s not all that imaginative. He latched onto your resemblance to the statue and that’s all he can see. He knows he can’t kill you, or his entire scheme will be exposed. We can hope he realizes he shouldn’t kill me or he’ll lose his hold on you.”
“But Incala did try to throttle you in the arena.”
“That was Incala. I suspect he heard from Napota about it. Incala had a chance to kill me when I was tied up yesterday and all he did was cut me.”
“Maybe. I’m not fully convinced, Jim.” Artemus got to his feet. “I think we should go check on the horses.”
Jim rose as well. “I’m with you. Better let Amanito know where we’re going. Better yet, we should escort him to his father’s quarters. Napota won’t do anything there.”
Amanito had other ideas. He wanted to accompany them to the horses, pointing out that he knew exactly where the steeds had been held. Knowing he was not going to listen to any arguments, the agents agreed. But as they left the stone room, they made certain one walked on either side of the chief-to-be.
The sun was bright already, causing them to squint and blink a few times. A number of people were already outside at their daily chores. Women were grinding corn and weaving baskets, while a couple of men appeared to be getting ready to go hunting. Some children played with crude toys. While those people bowed their heads in the presence of the god, as well as the chief, Artie thought they were losing some of their awe toward him. Which is good, because before we leave I have to make them understand I’m merely a man.
Amanito led them along the wide ledge in the direction from which they had originally arrived, and opposite the path to the arena, until it finally narrowed and a wooden ladder allowed them descend to the roadway below. Jim vaguely remembered seeing canyon offshoots on his enforced march at the end of a rope, but he had been busy keeping his feet under him and not paying all that much attention to the scenery.
About a hundred yards from the pueblo, Amanito paused at what at first appeared to be merely a pile of dry brush. Jim and Artemus quickly realized that the brush covered the narrow entrance to a canyon, and they helped Amanito push it aside to reveal a rather small area with a dead end on the opposite side. The area was probably fifty feet across, with a small spring bubbling out of one side, and a fair amount of grass growing around the spring. Eight or ten goats grazed on that grass.
Both horses were at the far end of the canyon, and both appeared to be gazing warily at the humans who entered. Jim whistled sharply, which brought the black horse’s ears forward and head up. He whickered and headed for them at a gallop, the chestnut mare quickly following. Both men had to laugh at the affectionate and enthusiastic greetings their steeds had for them.
Quickly checking over his fine mount, Jim determined that he was in pretty good shape. The tack had been removed and tossed in a heap near the entrance. As Artie looked through their possessions, the surface of the ground at the opening caught Jim’s attention.
“Look at this.”
Artemus turned to gaze where his partner was pointing. “Looks like some kind of scuffle took place.” He could see horse hoof prints along with those of barefoot and sandal-clad men.
Jim nodded, grimly satisfied. “Not too long ago either.”
Amanito was mystified. “What does it mean?”
Jim glanced at the newly chosen chief. “I suspect that last night when Napota and his friends left the pueblo they came here and attempted to move the horses. Maybe simply to turn them loose.”
“And leave us stranded here,” Artie added. “The horses—probably the black one in particular—would have none of it.”
Amanito was still bewildered. “Why would Napota do that?”
“Because he still wants my support, or Armahiga’s,” Artie explained. “He knows he can’t force me to do anything unless he threatens my friend. So he wants us to stay here—until he manages to wrest the leadership position from you.” Although it’s possible that he thinks he can dispose of Jim and then use the safety of certain members of the tribe against me.
The three men replaced the brush over the entrance and walked slowly back toward the residential caves, not talking much. Amanito was obviously troubled by his brother’s behavior, and certainly worried about what Napota might do. Artie knew the younger brother cared a great deal for his tribe, not merely for the power the title bestowed upon him.
If only we had more power ourselves, Artie mused. If this was a town like so many others in this country, Jim and I—or other law enforcers—could step in. But it isn’t. The Tatuma civilization will die out eventually, possibly after being discovered by men who are not as thoughtful about preserving their culture and Jim and I are. But for now…
His thoughts trailed away as they reached the ladder by which they would ascend to the ledge above. Jim was in the lead and he mounted the steps first. Artie saw him pause as he gained the top, and glance back down. Something he had seen up there was troubling, but he did not want to voice it.
Artie found out what it was when he followed Amanito up the ladder. Napota and Incala were standing near the entrance to the cave. That in itself was not particularly bothersome, but two other items were. One was that all the adults and children who had been there working and playing when the trio left to find the horses were now absent. The other was what Jim quietly told Artie, that he had seen Napota quickly send two other men in through the door as soon as Jim’s head had appeared at the rim of the ledge.
“Something’s up,” Artie muttered back.
Napota stepped forward and bowed slightly as they approached then spoke to Amanito. Amanito glanced at each of his companions. “My father wishes to see me and the great Eagle God.” He nodded to Napota and voiced his assent in their native tongue. Napota immediately shook his head vehemently and seemed to repeat what he said previously, with a few added words, in a more forceful tone.
Amanito turned to his bodyguards, his face troubled. “Napota say our father wish for me and Eagle God to come… not… evil one.”
“No!” Artie’s tone was sharp, and he saw that Napota understood that tone, if not the word… and smiled.
Jim saw the smile too. He put a hand on his partner’s arm. “Go ahead. Let’s see what’s up. Keep a watch for the two characters Napota sent inside.”
Artie glanced around. At the moment only Napota and Incala were visible. The ledge did not appear to have any hiding places. This was the only entrance to the carved out caverns that were the Tatuma’s home. Incala stood a couple of feet behind Napota, his arms folded on his chest, face mostly unreadable. Only the glittering eyes that were fastened on Jim revealed any hint of his thoughts.
“This may be what we need to do,” his partner replied quietly, keeping his own face implacable and his voice low. “Force their hands. We have our guns now.” He knew that Artie had his weapon secreted inside his clothing just as he himself did.
Artie nodded reluctantly and turned to Amanito, whose expression was troubled and confused. “Let us go see your father. We do not wish to keep him waiting.”
As the two men moved through the opening, Jim casually stepped over to put his back against the wall, as far from the precipice as he could manage. Neither Napota nor Incala moved immediately, though both men appeared immensely satisfied. It is some kind of ploy, Jim decided. For the moment the question seemed to be did Napota intend to participate, or was he sending his champion—or former champion—in alone?
The question was answered almost as soon as it brushed through Jim’s mind, as the two men he had seen go inside now stepped out again. Jim stiffened with the realization that Napota had outmaneuvered them. Napota had waited until he would be seen sending the men into the caverns, so that the outsiders would think something was being plotted, perhaps against Amanito or even the Eagle God. Jim had had no qualms about going up against Incala, or Incala and Napota, especially because the latter was obviously no fighter. But these two men, while not as beefy as Incala, looked young and strong.
While Napota stood back slightly, the other three stepped over to where they formed a half circle around Jim, who was still up against the wall. He knew he had outsmarted himself. He had nowhere to go but through these three muscular tribesman—with Napota as their backup. Whether Napota was armed or not, he could be dangerous, especially if Jim’s attention was on the other three.
Jim did not want to draw his gun. Not yet. He would use it only as a last resort.
Incala said something, and laughed maliciously. He was in the middle of the three, and all three were watching Jim intently, waiting for a move. Jim remembered what Artie had told him prior to the contest in the arena: “You can fight dirty when the occasion demands.” He had not been required to make any “dirty” moves in that fight, but that had been one-to-one. This was different.
His back against the stone wall, Jim abruptly lifted his right leg and slammed his boot low into Incala’s abdomen. The big man howled in agony, bending over as he staggered back. The other two men were momentarily startled, their attention diverted, so Jim took advantage. He slammed his right fist into the jaw of the one on the left then slued around to deliver a left to the other man. Both also staggered back. The one on the left went to his knees, but the other recovered more swiftly, and with a yell of rage, threw himself toward Jim, apparently planning to grab his opponent bodily.
Jim deftly stepped out of the way, looking around quickly to check on Incala and Napota. The former was still bent over, trying to catch his breath, while Napota was frozen for the moment by the turn of events. With those two accounted for, Jim turned back to the other two. They were now both on their feet and moving toward him. Jim used his feet again, slamming his right boot into the midriff of one and then spinning with the foot still in the air so that he caught the other in the ribs. This time both went down, and now Incala had recovered enough to join the fray, his eyes blazing, and muttering what must have been Tatuma oaths in an ugly manner.
Remembering Incala’s little trick of tripping him, Jim stayed out of reach of the big man’s legs, feinting forward a couple of times and causing Incala to step back. On one of those, when Incala was leaning slightly backward, both feet planted firmly on the ground, Jim leapt forward and pummeled the already sore area of Incala’s abdomen with hard fists. As Incala bent forward again, gasping for air once more, Jim used his fists against the jaw, and Incala went down on his back.
Whirling around, Jim found the other two men were still down, though not unconscious. It appeared they were not quite ready and willing to engage him again.
“Jim! Look out!”
Artie’s shouted warning caused Jim to pivot. Napota, his face livid with rage was coming toward him, arms outstretched. Jim immediately realized how close he was to the edge of the ledge. He had only a brief moment to react, which he did by stepping back quickly, reaching for Napota as he did.
The maneuver did not work as either man thought it would. Napota’s obvious intent had been to shove Jim over the precipice to the rocky ground some thirty feet below. Knowing that Napota’s momentum was going to carry him over instead, Jim tried to grab the Tatuma’s arm. But Napota saw the move, veering out of reach—and tumbled over the edge, screaming in terror.
Jim quickly stepped to the edge and sensed his partner joining him. Below Napota was sprawled, his neck at a terrible angle. Jim looked at Artie, who turned away, face grim, and went to the ladder. As he descended, Amanito and Lunata joined Jim to watch as Artie reached the fallen man. Even though the verdict seemed already firm, Artie sought a pulse, then looked up, shaking his head.
“I’m sorry, Amanito,” Jim said softly.
The young chief sighed noisily. “I see all. He try kill you. You try help him.”
Artemus came back up the ladder. “He must have decided to get rid of you, Jim, and take his chances with controlling me as the Eagle God. After all, nothing else was working.”
Jim looked back at the three accomplices, now recovered enough to be on their knees before their chief-to-be. All hope of gaining power with Napota was lost to them. “What about them?”
“They be punished. Napota was bad. He make men do bad things with false promises.”
“What will you tell your father?” Artie asked.
Amanito sighed again. “He know Napota not good. But he father. He will be sorrow. He understand.”
Now Jim looked at his partner. “What brought you back out? I presume the message from Radina was false.”
“We didn’t even get to his quarters,” Artie replied. “Titaca stopped us. He had overheard Napota and Incala planning to ambush and separate us. He didn’t know what Napota had in mind but I had a pretty good idea. So I headed back out here.”
“And just in time.”
The two agents remained with the Tatuma two more days. As Artie said, “We’re already almost a week late in Albuquerque. What’s a couple more days?” The funeral service for Napota was held that evening. They learned from Lunata that as a chief’s son, Napota was entitled to certain ceremonies, but because of his treachery, Radina wanted it shortened. Napota was not a hero and did not deserve a hero’s honors. Radina made sure that his people learned what the elder son had done, beginning with the lies about Artemus being a god and accusing Jim of attempted murder.
The following day, two more ceremonies took place. Radina insisted that he had the power to change the tribal laws and customs. He wanted to see his son inaugurated as the new chief, and he wanted to witness the wedding of the new chief and his bride. He also wanted the two outsiders to be present for the festivities… that lasted well into the early morning hours.
Finally, at midmorning on the third day, with slight headaches that both knew resulted from the fermented beverage that had been served at the post-wedding fete, they said their farewells, with promises not only to keep the Tatuma’s location and existence secret, but to try to come back one day. Artie was no longer a god in the eyes of the tribal members, but both men were revered for having helped them escape the inevitable rule of a man they knew would be a tyrant.
Their horses, having been confined to the small canyon without much attention for several days, were eager to be out on the trail, especially Blackjack, who would have galloped the whole distance to Albuquerque, Artie thought, had Jim not held tight to the reins.
It wasn’t until they made camp that evening alongside a small spring that they talked about the experience, how fate had seemingly led them to the Tatuma at just the right time. “Of course,” Artie mused, “if we had not taken that shortcut, we would never have known of the tribe—and then would not have known whether Napota gained the chiefdom, if he murdered his brother, and wed Lunata.”
“True enough,” Jim sighed, lying back on his blankets. It was good to have the fire crackling beside them, to look up and see the stars. Even the ground seemed softer than the hard rock of the caves.
Artie poked a couple of small sticks on the fire. “Now we have to come up with an excuse for our delay without revealing the location of the tribe.”
“We just tell them the truth.”
“Artie, a puma startled your horse, you were thrown and had a concussion. We could not travel for several days because of it.”
Artie gazed across the fire at his partner. “James, sometimes you surprise me with your intelligence.”
“Well, thanks a whole bunch, pal!”
Artie laughed as he lay down and pulled his blankets up, aware that Jim was not actually affronted. “I wonder if Amanito and Lunata will carry through with their plan to name their first son Artemus.”
Artemus laughed again, knowing that his partner had evened the score. “Good night, Jim.”
“Good night, Artie.”
Fate steals along with silent tread,
Found oftenest in what least we dread;
Frowns in the storm with angry brow,
But in the sunshine strikes the blow.
—A Fable—Moral, William Cowper (1731-1800), English poet
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros