FICTION

El Dorado

ALLAN SWINTON September 15 1940
FICTION

El Dorado

ALLAN SWINTON September 15 1940

Patrons of the “Galleon of Panama” café are surprised one night when

JUDITH SALTMARSH, a girl of evident refinement, enters the squalid place. Eyebrows are raised still higher when she asks for

SLIM DRISCOLL, a well-known adventurer of the South American hinterlands who, having just lost a small fortune at the gaming tables, is down on his luck. The girl, searching for her twin brother,

JOHNNIE SALTMARSH, missing somewhere in the mysterious Andes in a search for gold, has been advised by the U. S. consul that Driscoll might help her.

She shows Driscoll an empty envelope, addressed in her brother's hand, found in the possession of a murdered Indian, the letter itself apparently having been stolen. Driscoll at last agrees to take the girl south to see

DON SEGUNDO DE VERONA, the innkeeper who had sent her the envelope. Arrived there, Driscoll refuses to go farther into the dangerous, quake-ridden mountain ranges, but, determined to find and rescue her brother, Judith outfits with Indians and pack llamas and sets out alone. Camping that night, in the vastnesses of the hills, she is surprised by Driscoll, who overtakes them. “Why have you come?” she asks. To which he replies:

"I needed exercise!”

(This it the Second of Six Parts)

NO! Why?" 

Her pressure acted like a goad. He snarled, "Quit cross-examining, and get me grub! I haven't had a bite since breakfast time." 

With a docility most strange for her, she hurried to the cache. He flung himself upon her bed and lay morose, feet stretched out to the blaze. 

She put on water and then started mixing batter. Driscoll said, "I've brought in everything I could, but having me will cut your range. You'll have to lump that. We'll take on the mules as long as we find fodder. Then I'll shoot them."

"But your job?”

"I sent a man out with a telegram."

"Oh, Slim! Why did you? I never did ask you, you know.”

He didn’t answer and they sat in silence till the pot boiled over. She brewed maté and passed him the gourd.

He sat sucking at the tube while she cooked flapjacks, then while he ate she rummaged through his gear, shook out and spread his bedding.

"Well, anyway,” he said, "you can make flapjacks.”

"I can make bread and cakes. You’d be surprised.”

She brewed herself some maté and replenished his. 

“Enough to eat?” she asked at length.

"Yes, thanks.”

He rolled himself a cigarette. They sat on in their pool of firelight in a silence that held more than words. At the other fire, the Indian still piped his tune, the same few bars repeatedly.

“How that tune suits the hills,” she said. "It sounds as though there should be more.”

“There is, but that chap doesn’t know. Three hundred years ago his people were a splendid race, fighters and poets and the greatest builders that the world has known. Then Europe found them and these fellows never heard of it. All they have now are some few airs and superstitions. Everything else has faded out.”

"You know a lot about these things.”

“I should. Learning them cost my mother’s life. My father kept us in the hills when she ought to have been in hospital. Yes, I know plenty about Incans.”

“Tell me some, will you? They’re just a name to me.”

He paused a moment. “It’s the old story of a fine race murdered by white people’s avarice. The world is full of them.”

The native who had played passed on his way to tend the llamas. Driscoll stopped him and took his instrument. "Ever see one of these? An ocarina?”

It was of terra cotta clay, shaped like a carrot with at one side a mouthpiece and some finger holes.

He put it to his lips and blew experimentally, and then began the Indian’s tune and held it through a melody as sweet as she’d imagined it.

"How beautiful!” she said. "And has it words?”

He was pushing up the fire, its red glow on his lean quiet face, and at her question he grew still. Gazing across it and beyond her, he recited:

Upon you the sun smiled; he lost a shining ray—

It lingered in your eyes.

A circling condor dropped a raven plume—

It floated downward to become your hair.

A flitting butterfly mistook you for a bloom— 

Captive he lies within your heart.

Twin shells from ocean’s depth became your ears—

The arching rainbow gave your brows their curve.

From the blue sky, a soaring lark looked down—

And, seeing you, forgot his song.

Its silver notes found in your throat,

A sweeter refuge than the throat of bird.

“How beautiful!” she said again, and looked at him. This was a new Slim Driscoll.

"Isn’t it? My father got it, piece by piece, from some old people who remembered it. ‘Sumak Chipitarca,’ it was called ‘Wonderful One.’ ”

Silence again. The fire was sinking and the embers glowed. There was the dark line of the hills against the stars, the glimmer of the plain below. Sometimes the air brought them the llamas’ smell.

He said, “You might not think it, but I sent those verses to a woman once, and meant ’em, every word of them. Now there’s a laugh.”

“No, that’s no laugh.”

“It is. You’d love it if you heard the rest.”

He stood up. “I’m getting maudlin.” He kicked the fire together and brought in new fuel.

As the flames crackled, he lay down and took out papers for a cigarette.

She went back to the cache and brought a box. She opened it, said, “Catch!” and tossed across a long cigar.

“Why, thanks,” he said surprisedly, and looked at it. “My special brand.”

“You said you liked them in Arostenango, so I brought you some. You can have one every Saturday.”

He had drawn his knife to cut it when his head came up. He stared at her with wrinkled brow. “Say, how come you brought these? You had no use for them.”

“Oh, I just—brought them.”

He gazed at her some moments, then incredulousness changed to anger. “You did plan that I’d come with you.”

“Why, Slim! Of course, I wondered if you might.” 

“You banked on it! You figured if you started, that I wouldn’t have the guts to let you go! That’s why you brought these things and why you camped here, where your fires would show away down the pass.”

He sprang up and his nostrils flared. He hurled the cigar into the fire and stormed out of the camp, and presently she saw him in the moonlight, a black angry figure pacing to and fro.

LONG, STILL days followed, the brown miles crawling past, the llamas and the silent Indians, Slim Driscoll by turns taciturn or gay, but with a strength just like the hills.

There were the little pools with grassy brinks, the long-legged birds, the plovers and the wrens that built the bulky nests among the cactus spikes.

There were the camps at night, the sweets of rest, the chill air, tang of the yaretta, savor of longed-for food, the quiet talks with Driscoll—in the Galleon of Panama so out of place, here so in tune.

Once started, he bent to their quest a houndlike pertinacity, leaving the pack train for long sweeps on either side, going alone because she would cut down his pace and sometimes being gone so long she feared he had got out of touch. But always he came back with tales of pools examined, valleys seen and, more important, with the news that he’d located one more trace of the old road.

“It puzzles me,” he said, “this road. The Incans had a road, a better road than any that the Romans built, four thousand miles from south in Chile up to Quito. It stopped there though. This looks like Incan work to me, but it’s a whole lot too far north.”

Sometimes they felt a thing that said: “Nothing stands still. Even the mountains live and breathe.” The shifting of the earth beneath her she at first mistook for an illusion caused by dizziness. Then everywhere shale slid and rocks rolled down the hills.

Ismael Garabote said, “El tremblor, excellence.” 

Driscoll explained, “That’s what destroys all these old roads. Earthquakes. They never stop.”

The weeks slid into four, in which they found no clue, no sign of humankind in any form. Then Slim announced that he could find no further trace of the old road. “Now what’ll we do?” he asked at length.

For the first time she had no reply.

She looked up at the Titan masses rearing around on every hand. Stage by stage through determination and with one small clue, she’d come thus far. Now the sole leading sign ran out.

Driscoll enquired, “You want to keep on till the grub is done?”

She nodded. He said, “Well, how’s this? My notion is this road was never finished—between stretches there are piles of part-hewn stone. If it was meant to cross the range it would have gone straight east, but it goes nor’nor’east—a bit more north and it would run into the snows. It must have been going somewhere and it might be that this place where it was heading is the place your Indian was coming from. Suppose we hold this line and I pick out the ground I think it would have followed if it had kept on. Two engineers might pick the same ground, don’t you see?”

“Why yes,” she agreed relievedly. “That’s splendid, Slim.”

THEY HAD climbed very high. The nights were bitter and the air grew thin. She felt that she had never known life other than this crawling, flylike, on vast mountainsides beneath peaks that remained unchangingly remote. Water grew scarce, and when they found it there were no more long-legged birds. Only the wrens, and the lonely plover remained, and sometimes as they traversed some high bare slope they saw, sailing past, that mighty, turkey-headed carrion bird, the condor.

Lately, she’d noticed, the three local men had shown signs of uneasiness moving reluctantly when bid and watching them with furtive eyes. She wondered if they felt the thing that was affecting her, of which Driscoll had warned her and at which she’d scoffed—the awe that issued from the hills.

And then one day they’d halted at a little pool. One of the Indians had lain down to drink. He scrambled up and ran to Driscoll with a flat circular object.

Slim shook the dust off and examined it, and then looked up with startled face. “That Indian with the envelope. Where was he hit?”

“The thigh, I think it was the old man said.”

His gaze as he regarded her showed new respect. “It looks as though your hunch was good. There wouldn’t be two wounded men in here. This is a bandage, cut off someone’s neck or leg, and we’ve been following the same trail, by the Waterholes.”

Something within her swelled until she felt her heart would burst. Her eyes were wet. “I knew it. Johnnie’s here somewhere. We shall find him.”

But she’d forgotten that which limited her scope. 

That evening it displayed its hand. Driscoll pitched in the pan a hunk of bacon. “That deans up half the grub.” 

Half the supplies! That meant that she had shot her bolt. She must turn back. And yet she knew that she was on the trail. With things that had to do with Johnnie she was always right.

That was a silent meal until she said, “How far d’you think it is across the range, holding this line?”

“Depends what sort of ground you ran into. Two months, or six, maybe a year. No one could tell.”

There was a long pause. Then she said, “For the first time I’m not glad you’re here.”

He looked up curiously.

“If I had only me to think of I should just keep on.” 

“That would be suicide.”

“How can you tell? You say you don’t know what’s ahead. I’ve proved you wrong each time so far. I think I’d find something. But if I didn’t, if it all went wrong, I shouldn’t mind. It would have been real living, not just routine existence. I’ve wanted that so much. Most people never really live.”

He sat there cross-legged in the dancing light, pitching small stones into the blaze. She watched his face, saw humor there, and sympathy, and in his eyes a certain glint.

It was a long time till he said, “This road we followed out. It interests me. The route I’ve picked since then scorns like a pass that it was heading for. Maybe it was the road to El Dorado.” He turned to her and cocked his eye. “Maybe the golden city wasn’t just a myth.”

Her face lit up. “You mean you want to go on—”

“That’s impossible. You don’t know what you would be tackling. Hunger and thirst. Starvation. Ever thought what they mean?”

“I have lately. I’m scared of them, but there are other things—fire and disease and mutilation in some accident. I might go home and end that way inside a week.”

“The chances are you wouldn’t. If you went on, it’s long odds that you’d starve to death.”

“I know. But still I’d go. I should be doing what I want, and if that’s where it led—”

He nodded. “You’re right there. It wouId be madness though. Likely the road just went to some old mine. We’d keep on till the grub ran out and then—there are a lot of Andes and they get their man. I know ’em and I’ve seen the bones—clean-picked.”

She recalled then the morning of the day before, the Aymara Eustachio down on his knees toward the peaks, and Garabote’s answer to her question as to what he did. “He prays to their old gods who live on Chimopaxi that they hold their hands from us. It is not good to go so far into the hills.” And she recalled the look, sly and inscrutable, in Garabote’s eyes.

But yet she said. “All right. I wasn’t asking you. I couldn’t have you risk your life. I’ve already made you lose your job.”

“No one makes any other one do anything. If we went on, would you agree that I’m the boss, my word to go, no argument? I wouldn’t have you chucking both our lives away.”

Her face was radiant. “Oh, yes! I would! I promise you!”

“You understand? This is no fireside chat. This is a big decision. Might lead to awful things, and curtains, for the lot of us.”

“I know. I’ve thought it all out for myself and I don’t mind. If it goes that way I can take it. You’ll see! Please don’t doubt me.”

He paused some moments, then he said, “Okay. We’ll keep on till we find something or cross the range.”

She went and got the thin flat box. That she should give him a cigar on Saturday was now a rite they both looked forward to. “It’s only Thursday, but this seems to need some celebration. Catch!”

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ve got some brandy in my kit, too.”

He rose and strolled to where the llama loads were piled between their camp fire and the Indians’. There was a little silence. Then his voice was raised in tones that sent her flying there.

She found him holding by the neck the youngest Indian and questioning him angrily.

"What is it?” Judith cried.

"I don’t know yet. I figured there was something odd about the way that guy Jenato was so interested. I overheard these beggars talking and they’ve got some sort of deal with him.”

He turned back to his prisoner. “Now you talk!” He took him by the gullet, squeezing him till his eyes stuck out, until the fellow yielded and began to whine. He eased his grip and listened, and then let him go.

"I thought as much. Jenato bribed them to report to him when they get back. As sure as death, he knew something. He’s paid them to inform the priest on everything.”

NEXT morning she awoke to a profound silence. Outside was still as death.

From the dead fire some smoke went up, a slim blue stream. By it lay Driscoll, sleeping.

She pulled on shirt and breeches, put her feet into sheepskin slippers and stepped out into the chill. Rubbing her eyes, she walked to where the Indians had had their fire and then her voice rose, sharp, incredulous. “Slim! Oh, Slim! Quick!”

His black hair in his eyes, in stockinged feet and disarray, he rolled out of his bed and ran across.

He looked, and swore. "I should have thought of it, after what happened yesterday.”

With all the llamas save the one that took their private gear, the Indians had disappeared.

He bent and felt the embers of their fire.

“Stone cold! They can’t have made ten miles though! I can catch ’em! Fix the fire and boil the pot while I get dressed.”

There was a heel of bannock from their last night’s bake and he ate this with chocolate and verba maté. Then he got up and drew his belt. She did the same, but he said, "You stay here.”

"Oh, no!”

"You couldn’t hold the pace. I’ll have to push. I’ll catch ’em up by noon and have ’em back by noon tomorrow. You sit tight. This is my job.”

She stood and watched him till he reached a mass of rock some distance down. He turned and waved. Then he was gone and she was lonely in the little camp beside the spring that ran off through a swath of grass and cacti. The single llama browsed among the greasewood tops.

Before her spread a wide brown valley rising to a ridge a mile away, which to her left ran off and lost itself in bluffs and to her right reared into range on mountain range.

Now that she was by herself, the whole world seemed to change. Her senses found a new acuteness in whose light the silence suddenly grew grimmer and the mountains seemed more ominous. She thought about the man Jenato, and his face took on a different look. Why should he bribe their men? It meant he’d had a motive from the first in coming to them, after he’d heard their tale from Don Arturo Reyes. She had a frightening thought. Maybe he’d bribed the Indians to run off too, and leave them in the hills to starve.

But why should he? She’d liked the man. He’d seemed so grave, so fatherly and understanding of her point of view. Yet he had lied about the nature of his interest, and he had bribed the Indians.

Her thoughts set free a spate of fear that ended reasoning. What if Slim didn’t catch the Indians? What if he did and they should hurt him? They might kill him! He had been rough with one last night.

Against these things she braced herself determinedly. It was all right! This was one more adventure to enhance experience. Jenato had been merely curious. He was a mountain man and wanted to know if they would find mines or anything. The Indians had got frightened and just headed home. Slim would come up with them and bring them back. He’d be quite safe—he had his pistol. He would be back next day by noon.

WITH RESOLUTION she made up the fire and cooked a meal. She sat some time imbibing maté, then cleaned up the camp and gathered a big stack of fuel.

She took a walk then: it seemed long, but her watch said it had been half an hour. How slow time was!

She found that she was straining for the sound of feet, and had to tell herself there was no chance of that before next day. Again she found her thoughts were taking frightening paths, and angrily she brought them back and tried to think about her brother. Instead, she found that she was thinking of Slim Driscoll. Now that he was gone, she felt deprived of half her strength.

When the ground moved beneath her she was not alarmed—she’d grown accustomed now to frequent earthquakes. This one was strong, but no more than some previous ones. There was no upthrust, only a swaying of the ground and then the rattle of the falling stones. That died and once more silence closed.

And then the swaying of the earth began again, not just one movement but an increasing swing, together with a Cyclopean rumble that grew till she clutched the sheepskins upon which she sat.

The movement died. Again upon the hillside the stones rattled down.

Then in the distance came another sound, a murmur first, that rose into a roaring that grew higher as in the valley to the sou’west she saw the entire shoulder of a hill slide forward, filling it. The hillside came to rest, and as the noise rolled back a dust cloud rose that veiled the sun completely.

She sprang up and stood staring, while her nails dug in her palms. Her face around the lips was white. That valley was where Slim would be! They had come up it yesterday. He must be buried by the avalanche!

How long she stood there, staring at the billowing dust, she did not know, but in the end she forced herself to sit down and reiterate. “It is all right! He can’t have got so far—not yet. Or maybe he’d got past before the slide occurred. He will be back.”

She thought these thoughts but could not break loose from the clutch of fear. Her mouth was dry, her knees weak. She was afraid.

She considered starting out to look for Slim, and decided it was better not. Numb with her apprehension, she went to and fro, heaping up fuel to last the night.

The sun was sinking in a westward cleft when she was startled by a shadow and a hissing sound. She raised her eyes to see a condor sail on great black wings close overhead. The huge bird wheeled, swept back and then with thrashing wings pitched on a boulder five yards up the cliff. It shook itself, drew in its grotesque head and settled down.

She recalled stories of the condors’ ghoulish prescience, how they could tell where death was due. Unheralded, out of the blue they sailed, to wait the first sign, sometimes, of what was to come!

She could not eat. The sun set and darkness closed. At last she lay down, and on toward dawn, she slept.

When she awoke, the sun was well clear of the eastern crests. A moment she lay in the luxury of warmth; then she remembered, and her spirits sank. She rose onto her elbow, to confront the condor, squatting hunched on the ground three feet away.

Each detail of the bird was plain: the mangy feathering, the scabbed grey legs, the white down ruff, the hairs upon the bare blue neck, the lizard eyes and crooked beak. Its gargoyle face watched her complacently.

Her scalp crawled and she struggled from her covers, snatched up a stick and rushed at it. It raised its wings, opened its beak and made an obscene hissing sound.

She threw stones at it and it hunched a wing to ward them off, floundered some yards, but gave no sign of taking flight. Unstrung, she dropped down on her bed.

For the first time the full implications of the situation struck her, and with sinking heart she hastened to review supplies. There was the load of the one llama Garabote had not taken and which still browsed by the hill: the cooking gear, her tent, the axe, their blankets and such food as had been at their fire. Only, she saw, enough to last a little while.

With shaky doggedness she told herself that all was well. Why was she worrying? Of course the landslide hadn’t caught Slim. Why should it, in all these hills? Hadn’t he said he’d not be back until today? All that she had to do was keep her head.

And she should have a welcome for him when he came in tired. Heaven knew, he’d done enough for her.

She figured carefully when he would come. Ten miles, at most, the stolen llamas could have made at night, and Slim, once started, would make two miles to their one. He would catch up inside six hours and then they’d make, say, half the journey back by dark. Starting at dawn, they should be in by twelve o’clock.

While she prepared her meal there sailed in two more condors, to alight by the first and settle down with an assurance that was frightening. How true, she wondered, were the stories of the creatures’ instincts? Could they sense nearing death or did they merely wait and hope?

With an effort she got down some food, then set to work to glean more fuel, in that bleak altitude a constant task. When that was done, to put in time, she thought she’d climb up to an eminence from which she might see far southwest.

Another carrion bird wheeled in. And then she heard Slim’s hail and there he came, rounding a rock with his long stride and holding up a greeting arm.

SHE CHECKED her impulse to rush out and cling to him. She mustn't let him see that this had touched her nerve. She waved her welcome and went more deliberately, watching behind him for the llamas to come round the bluff.

“Hullo!” he called. “Are you all right? Why, look at all those blasted birds!”

She nodded. “Brutes! There’s been one here since yesterday. I couldn’t budge it.” He took a stone and knocked one staggering, rushed at another, kicking it off its feet. With mighty thrashings the birds got to wing and flapped away.

He went in to the fire and squatted. “Ha! That’s good! Cold last night. Too dark to travel and I’d left so fast I didn’t take a match and had to sleep under a rock.”

She said, “The men?”

He looked upward, quizzing her, “After that big ’quake yesterday, did you hear anything?”

“You mean the landslide? Yes. And saw it too. It had me terrified it had caught you.”

“I was up on the other ridge, cutting across to head them off. They were below. I saw it catch ’em—half the Andes roll on top of them.”

He watched her with his eyebrow cocked. “We’re in a jam. At first I thought we might dig out the grub, and went to see. There’s not a chance.”

They looked at one another as the llama came in for its morning drink. Slim said, “It would be that one, with that stuck-up smirk. Exactly like my cousin Stukeley, with the brilliant future in the State Department. I shall love killing him for meat.” They both laughed, but not mirthfully.

There was a silence. Looking a little peaked, she started mixing batter for a meal but he cried, “Whoa! Go easy with that flour, will you? Just how much grub did those blighters leave?”

They totalled their resources, which comprised their private gear, an open ten-pound sack of flour, some salt and baking powder, five or six pounds of bacon with a bag of maté and a slab of chocolate. Slim produced fire with flint-and-wheel and slow match, of which he had plenty.

“Well,” he declared, “it could be worse. A man can go on mighty little if he has to. We've got Stukeley here. I’ve got my six-shooter and fifty rounds. Going back will be all downhill and by the time we’ve finished Stukeley we’ll have got down low enough to pot some birds. Good job it’s summer and they’ll still be there. We’ll make it, fine.”

He glanced at her to see how she was taking it.

She said, “What is the longest we could keep on with the food we have?”

He looked at the supplies. “We must keep strong to travel and pack Stukeley’s meat, and so we can’t cut down too much. We might spin out the stores a fortnight and keep up our strength. Then Stukeley. Two months, maybe, if it all went well.” 

She mixed the bannock, set it by the fire to rise. They sat and watched it till she propped it up. He caught her eye. She smiled, and he smiled back.

When he had done she gave him a cigar. “You may as well smoke these, now that we shan’t have Stukeley long, to carry them.”

“That’s right. Thank you.”

When it was going well, she said, “Two months then, without finding food.” 

“That’s just my guess. Maybe we’ll have to eat more than I figure on. Maybe llama meat will make you ill.”

“Of course.”

She looked up suddenly. “Please, Slim, let’s not go back. Let’s just go on.”

He stared at her. “You’re nuts.”

“I’m not. I want to finish what I’ve started on. Has it occurred to you that what Jenato bribed the men for was to murder us?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

“If so, it means there’s something here he wants to hide. That would be Johnnie. Don’t you see? Let’s just suppose he was connected with his disappearance. He hears of us from Don Arturo, comes to pump us, tries to stop us coming in and when he can’t he bribes the men to have us disappear as Johnnie did.”

“It’s plausible, but there are no connections. He wasn’t known in Chirialba. Don Segundo and his folk were mighty curious and told me no one had seen him before. I think more likely he’s a miner, keen to find out anything that we might learn to help him prospecting, and that our natives just plain quit, from funk.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But anyway, I want to go on. I should want to if there weren’t this possibility—”

Her head went up, to gaze up to the hills that had assumed so grim a look, then higher to the still white peaks. “I’d like to go on just—to see.”

He watched her face, bloodless but eager. “Uphill,” he said, “away from grub and water. Into—well, you know.” 

“I know.” Her chin came up. “But let’s goon. Let’s not give in. Let’s just go on.” 

He sat there gazing at her a long time. At last he said, “I get it. I’ve seen this before. It’s the disease. Explorers’ bug. You think it’s for your brother but it’s not. Not now. If we had found him dead you’d still be wanting to go on. It’s what sends men on any crazy quest to leave their bones. They think they’re after this or that. They’re not. If they found El Dorado it would prove too dull. What gets ’em is the fever of the quest itself. It got my father. My mother tried to keep me from it but I got caught, just like him. And now you’re hooked.”

He propped himself back on his arm to gaze at Chimopaxi’s still white peak. Leaning thus, he addressed it in terms personal and pungent, as though it could hear. Then he swung upright and told her, “All right. I’ll go you. But let’s start, before I change my mind.”

As though alarmed to find that she had got her way, she sat some moments gazing at him. Then she jumped up and started helping him to pack the things.

As they were doing up the food, he said, “I’ll see if those hogs left us anything by accident,” and walked to where the Indians had had their fire. He searched about and then picked up an object which he brought to her. “They did.”

It was a little bale, perhaps nine inches square, bound tight with fibre, a bale of the dark green leaves chewed endlessly by all the aborigines. “Their coca leaves,” Driscoll explained. “They have cocaine in them. That’s why the habit has got such a hold. We might be glad we’ve got these before we get through.”

He packed the bundle with the bedding, loaded Stukeley and she helped him throw the hitch. Then, without further comment, they resumed their march.

FROM the outset they met unexpected difficulty. Following an Indian in front and shepherded by one behind, till now the llamas had meandered fonward at a steady pace. Handled by whites, alone, the llama that resembled Driscoll’s cousin Stukeley was refractory. He would not follow, nor could he be driven. When Slim coerced him, he jibbed, backed and spat, and not until he put a line around his neck and towed, while she urged from behind, could the brute be budged. This made of travelling a weariness, and then, that way, the beast could get no food, and that was serious. As Slim declared, “The farther we can travel without killing him the better, but we’ve got to keep the meat on him.” This meant they had to give him time to feed and cut that much their travelling hours. This was not altogether bad as it gave Judith a lot more rest. They took turns lugging the reluctant beast, Driscoll with frequent blistering words.

The first night, Driscoll rationed out the food, instructing her to eat slowly, even more slowly. “Mighty little food can suffice a person if handled properly,” he explained.

When they had settled down to travelling, as the result of some response to the caresses she now tried on the llama, they made better progress, although, Driscoll thought, no more than some ten miles a day. The country quickly grew more difficult. Water was scarce, although they always did find some. The mountainscape was closing in. The wide bare saddles yielded place to canyons, the smooth slopes to cliffs. Save for the black speck of a condor in the sky, all life had gone. The land had now a graveyard air and seemed like the epitome of loneliness.

Soon, her awareness of the world outside grew dim. She lived in unreality, a time of frightening emotion driven by a strange, fierce zest she did not know she had.

Slim Driscoll watched her with a judicial air, noting the face whose smoothness had given place to hollowness, with eyes unnaturally bright. The fifth night, bivouacked in comfort in a niche, their small meal done, a good fire’s warmth reflected from grey rock behind, he asked, “Well? How d’you feel?” and eyed her narrowly.

“I don’t quite know.”

He said, “One time I undertook to walk a tree across a hundred-foot ravine. One step and you were caught, nothing to do but shove ahead and pray you’d balance. That the way?”

“Why, yes! And you?”

“I always feel the same when anything important’s on, all sort of scientific, as though it was happening to someone else and I was watching it.”

He sat cross-legged, his elbows on his knees, his face reposed. She reclined on her bed, her back propped by a rock, a sheepskin round her shoulders and her feet in slippers, boyish save for her eyes and her brown, shining curls.

He brought out from his roll the ocarina which he’d purchased from the Indian who’d carried it.

She listened while he played in its pure, lonely tones and then she said, “The one you played that first night. The old Incan song.”

He put the mouthpiece to his lips and played it through.

She asked, “What were the words again?”

He lowered the little instrument of rough red clay.

“Upon you the sun smiled; he lost a shining ray,

It lingered in your eyes—”

He spoke the verses with quiet feeling and intensity.

What kind of woman had embittered such a man, she thought? She stole a look and saw that he seemed quite detached, sat polishing the ocarina on his coat sleeve carefully.

There came a sound across the fire and he looked up, “Well, I’ll be darned. I never saw one come up to a fire before.”

Red in the firelight, looking at her with its ears cocked, was the llama, Stukeley. Her caresses apparently had borne fruit. She scrambled up and went around and pulled its ears and talked to it. By-and-by it lay down with the firelight on its long neck and its mild sheep’s face and horse’s ears. She felt, somehow, a sense of satisfaction.

That night something occurred that both startled and alarmed her.

She must have been asleep some hours when she grew wide awake. She lay there, cosy in her coverings, wondering what had ended sleep so thoroughly.

Quiet was intense. The glow had left the fire, which slowly smoked. There was a moon, the third since they had started, making a silver world blotched with black shade.

She snatched the covers to her throat. Beside her on his knee was Driscoll, bent low and peering down. She lay there fascinated, gazing upward at his dark, tense face. Then suddenly he stood up. She rose up on her arm and saw him stride out of the camp and disappear among the rocks.

She sat and shook all over, crouching propped in her blankets, staring at the darkness that had swallowed him.

She must have dozed toward dawn for she awoke to sizzling and the smell of bacon, and saw him squatting on his heels and fork in hand, intent on cookery. Seeing her move, he called, “Hullo!”

In the bright morning sun he seemed so different from the man who had bent over her it made her wonder if she’d dreamed the thing. Throughout the day, neither referred to it.

SOME DAYS went by. The bag of flour was getting low, the hunk of bacon dwindling. Driscoll seemed quite unconscious of the situation, but presently she saw signs that he was not at ease, and learned the cause.

They had marched some hours along a canyon in the shadow of its eastern wall. Ever since they had started they had kept the great peaks at the culmination of the range well to their left. Now, high above the slopes framed by the canyon’s mouth, they reared up, dead ahead.

Slim stopped. “We’re off the line. These last four days we’ve been forced north.” 

She saw him for the first time anxious, as his gaze went up and down the sheer rock face that barred their way. He said: “If that line I was following was a pass, I’ve lost it now. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the road just went to some old mine that’s fallen in. We’ll have to go back on our tracks. If we can’t find some way to work nor’east, we’re done.”

Not waiting for her comment, he drove Stukeley round and headed back, and she resented it.

Once she had started out, the sense that she was doing everything she could for Johnnie had allayed her worry for him, sinking it deep beneath the labor of the days and her new, strong emotions.

Thus to turn back broke this content, brought to the top the urge that had brought her on so strange a journey and so far from home. But she had promised Driscoll he should lead and so could not protest.

Disturbed, rebellious, she brought up the rear, chiding the llama when he tried to stray, while the sun cleared the brink, mounted yet higher till at length it lit the great face under which they marched, casting frem its projections down its face long spears of shade.

Driscoll was scanning it in this new light when suddenly he stopped, his face upraised. She saw his gaze run to and fro. Then, pointing eagerly, he cried, “By Jove, it is! Look! There’s the road, ’way up the cliff. The pass ran out. They had to climb.”

She looked but could not make out what it was that had excited him.

“No!” he declared. “Not that way. See the big dip on the skyline, just beyond a little hump? Now down a bit and to the right. Look! You can see the shadow where it bridges that big cleft.”

She had grown used to distance and in that crystal air had not perceived how high was the rock. Now she made out, dwarfed by the height, some stonework built across a cleft, followed its course across the face and saw more, where the track was corbelled out around a bulge.

Driscoll was all excited. “By the Great Horn Spoon! Nobody ever heard about a road in here! Who built it? Why?”

SEEING him so inspired roused her. This was a new Slim Driscoll, eager and abruptly young. She said, and her words held a double meaning, “Maybe it leads to El Dorado, Slim.”

He did not look at her but at the cliff, and missed her hint. “It might,” was his reply. “There are lost treasures in the hills, that’s sure. We’ll have to follow back till we find some way up.”

Two days they journeyed backward underneath the road, and then they came to where an earthquake had brought down a slope by which, after four hours of tugging at the laden Stukeley, they climbed to a track whose making would be held a feat today, yet which was built by people who knew neither iron nor wheel. It was some six feet wide. On one side rose the cliff, along whose face with master skill it was cut, bored or corbelled out. The other side dropped unwalled into emptiness.

Perched thus in space, she had a fresh view of the vastness of the mountain land. The ground below seemed fifty times as distant as the road had when they had looked up at it. As they resumed their march she found that she was pressing close against the cliff, in fear that their weight should cause the road to fall. But Driscoll strolled along the edge, making her hold her breath.

All day they plodded up the ancient road, and camped at night where it was bridged across a stream that roared out of a steep ravine. Now they met other trouble, that of finding fuel. To glean enough for one fire took an hour of clambering about the gully at grave risk of limb.

Next morning she woke early, as she’d resolved to do this day. The camp was five feet from the precipice. Driscoll lay sleeping in his sheepskins. Near him was Stukeley, in a still grey heap. The fire was out. The world of yawning space, of mauve and purple distances, of peaks set in relentless calm, was dead. The air was motionless, ice-cold and pure.

She lay awhile recalling this day’s anniversaries at home, when there had been her father and her brother and the neighbors and the old sweet things. Though she was in a wilderness, ten thousand feet up in the hills, the memories induced the same nostalgia.

She slipped out of her covers, stole across and placed beside Slim a small paper packet, tied up with ribbon from her sewing bag.

Then she lay down and pitched a stone.

He stirred and rose onto his elbow, knuckling his eyes. He pushed the covers back and made to get up, but then saw the packet. Puzzled, he turned it over, read the card, cut from the flyleaf of her diary, on which she’d sketched a snow scene and a sprig of holly. “Judith to Slim. A Merry Christmas.”

He looked around and saw her laughing. Still gravely intent, he freed the cover, to disclose two further packets which, on unwrapping, showed a small worn book of Shakespeare’s sonnets and her past week’s ration of their chocolate.

He was both moved and disconcerted. “You’re a chump! You needed this. But thanks no end. I’d lost track of the date and Christmas hasn’t meant a lot to me. I haven’t anything for you,” he ended in discomfiture.

“You gave up all you had to help me with the only thing I cared about.”

He spoke with sudden feeling, and at the sound of his voice her heart stood still. “I’m glad,” he said. “It’s been worth everything I gave up, and more."

To be Continued