Author Note: The Inca Trail took second place in short fiction at the 2019 Hampton Roads Writers Conference.
The Inca Trail
A hand holding a canvas covered canteen slipped into the field of vision of Thomas Gardner, explorer, archeologist and treasure hunter. Thomas took it, pulled the cob cork from its neck and took a half-dozen swallows before pouring a glug or two over a yellow bandanna and wiping his face and neck with the lukewarm wet rag.
Thomas passed the canteen back to Masi, his Peruvian guide. He nodded in gratitude and turned his face back to the ancient pathway that climbed higher before disappearing around a bend. Being on the trail always made Thomas smile. He lived for the sun, fresh air and the freedom of being outdoors.
The explorer’s body showed the strain of the two days of exertion above 10,000 feet. His legs ached and he bent over to catch his breath before asking, “How much farther, Masi? Dead Woman's Pass, I mean.”
His guide's baritone voice answered from behind, “Warmiwañusca is around the bend another two miles, Señor Gardner. You will see her reclining, waiting for her lover, when we make that turn.”
Thomas groaned, stood straight and turned to look at his guide. The Peruvian was squinting, shading his eyes, glancing at the sun burning a hole in the Andean sky.
“And, we must hurry on if we are to make camp on the other side of the pass. Intik, the Inca sun, hurries westward, toward the ocean beyond, to rest. Storms form quickly this high, and if a storm breaks while we are on the pass ...” The guide looked at the explorer and shrugged.
Gardner tied the rapidly drying cloth around his neck, stepping up onto the granite block that marked the next step of his trek along the length of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. He struggled for a breath of the thin dry air before assenting, “Then, we'd best be on our way, my friend. Let's not keep the Dead Woman waiting.”
Masi's shadow was twice as long as the guide was tall when he held up his hand. “Señor Gardner, we are far enough below the pass. We will camp here.”
Thomas looked around at the guide’s selected campsite. Then, glancing up, his eyes climbed the rocky cliff face looming over them, purple sunset chasing the last light up its craggy face. Those same shadows closed in around them. The only sounds were the scurrying of small animals in the scrub brush and the burble of a small snowmelt fed stream. The rivulet crossed through a granite-slab culvert on the rock trail before it disappeared over the edge, destined to become evening mist settling in the valley below. “Are you certain, Masi? I wouldn't want to be caught here in one of those storms you mentioned.”
Stepping off the trail, pulling his pack off and setting it down on a small patch of dry grass below the stream, Masi insisted, “Here we are safe, Señor. There is no other place for another two hours. The old trail runs the ridge line now.”
Thomas made a sound that echoed his inner doubts, shrugged his own pack off and asked, “Is that stream safe to drink?”
The big Peruvian chuckled, a crooked smile on his weather-worn face, “Si. But only if you piss downhill from it, Señor.”
The silence woke Thomas. His eyes popped open, the only motion he allowed his body. The night noises were absent, the only noise the constant burble of the stream twenty yards uphill. There are no animal noises. That’s not right. He let his eyes survey all that he could see in the dim starlight. His guide's bedroll was empty. And Masi is missing: also not right. Thomas closed his eyes, concentrating on his sense of hearing, filtering out the few noises that belonged. He heard voices speaking in a low whisper not far away. He ran his thumb up the leather strap of the shoulder holster of his 44-caliber Colt. There had been no one else on the trail when he went to bed, so Thomas shifted into defense mode, senses on high alert and holding snap undone on his pistol; a mode he'd always found to be handy when things didn't seem right.
Rolling slowly onto his right side, as if changing positions in his sleep, his right hand slipped his revolver from the holster. The whispering stopped, replaced by the crunch of boots on the trail. He opened his eyes enough to glimpse three men, all dressed alike. As they approached, he made out two strangers flanking Masi. Both strangers carried machetes.
Thomas spoke out, “Who are your noisy new friends, Masi?”
The men stopped. Masi uttered a word, one unknown to Thomas. Their heads swiveled in search of danger as Masi stepped ahead of them, his hands empty, facing the explorer. Thomas rolled over, sat up, and kept his drawn weapon concealed.
Masi’s voice was level, but Thomas sensed a malevolence in his words. “Careful, Señor Gardner. We want no harm to come to you. We only want your notes on the Inca treasure hidden in the Machu Picchu temple. Give it to us and we will take only it and your boots.” He paused, his hands turning palms up. “Instead of taking your life.”
Thomas pulled his knees up, right hand holding the pistol, thumb drawing back the hammer, the sound masked by the scooting of his body. “What gives you the idea that I’m looking for treasure, Masi? I hired you to guide me on the Inca Trail, from one end to the other. Machu Picchu is only one stop on my hike.”
Masi’s voice betrayed evil intent as he spoke slowly. “The archaeologist in Cuzco is my cousin, Señor. He told me of your questions about the Inca gold.” He took one step forward, his voice changing to one of command, “Enough foolishness. Give me the notes.” He growled another word and his machete-wielding companions split apart to encircle Thomas.
Thomas’ voice was no longer friendly. “Masi. Have your friends stand still. As you say,” Thomas unmasked his revolver, keeping it pointed at the guide, “there is no reason for anyone to get hurt.” He allowed a small smile to appear. “There is no treasure in Machu Picchu. It's been searched, prodded, X-rayed and sonared until each rock larger than a grain of sand has a name. You know that. Now, everyone just relax.”
The stranger to his left continued to move. Thomas' voice was sharp, measured and insistent. “Alto! No te muevas mas!” The pistol barrel shifted from Masi to the left-hand stranger, center mass. The stranger stopped, cowed by the threat conveyed by the barrel of the pistol pointed at his chest. Thomas' eyes remained locked on the guide. “Have them put the machetes down, Masi. The odds are simply not in your favor. You play cards, right? I’m sure you recognize that six bullets trump two machetes.” Thomas’ smile broadened but his eyes remained cold.
Masi tensed, jumping forward yelling “Llevalo! Take him!”
The shout was lost in the loud report of the pistol and the immediate scream of the left-hand thief, who fell to the ground, a 44-caliber hole drilled through the muscles of his thigh, his machete flying away harmlessly. The pistol shifted to the man on the right. Thomas fired again, this time striking the wrist holding the machete, the clang of metal and scream of pain joining the keening of the first man. Thomas rolled away from Masi and sprang to his feet, his smoking pistol held steady, aiming directly at Masi's chest.
The guide stopped, left hand held out in supplication, right hand behind his back. “Señor. You can see that I am unarmed. Please?”
Thomas snorted. “A rattlesnake might make the same claim.”
Masi shifted slightly.
The explorer barked out. “Ah ah! I know you have a knife behind your back, Masi. I've seen it when you sit down.” He watched Masi shift again. Thomas shook his head slowly. Lowering his voice to a hard statement, “I only wounded your friends, Masi. A non-existent map to a non-existent treasure is not worth a life; not even yours. If I see a knife, I won't kill you.” The barrel shifted down an inch. “But your friends will be hard-pressed to get you off this trail with a shattered thigh bone.”
Thomas was ready when Masi slumped his shoulders, feigned with his left hand and twisted to throw his knife with his right. The knife flew to the ground, yards off target, when the bullet blew through his left thigh, shattering the femur. The guide crumpled to the ground, screaming in agony.
Thomas finished dressing the leg of his former guide and stood. The three Peruvian thieves lay in the shadow of the cliff, hands tied, and ankles hobbled, except for the broken wrist on one; that arm splinted and bandaged. “I'll leave food and first aid supplies up the trail. I'll also leave your knife there to cut your bonds.” Thomas pointed at the thief with the broken wrist, but with two functioning legs, ankles hobbled six inches apart. “It'll take an hour or two for him.to squirm his way there.”
The explorer shook his head, a sad expression on his face, his voice apologetic. “That was so senseless, Masi. There is no gold in Machu Picchu, and I have no notes claiming that. Your cousin wasn't listening closely enough to my questions.” Turning away, he pulled his backpack on, picked up the machetes and started up the trail, pausing a few paces up and turning back. “When I get to Machu Picchu tomorrow morning, I'll send the authorities back to help you. Don't let me see any of your faces again. If anyone follows me, I'll shoot out his knees.” He paused. “Then, where will you be?” He turned back to the trail, waving over his shoulder. “Adios, amigos.”
The sun was just rising above the Andean peaks as Thomas crested the last ridge. As if he had turned the page in a travel book, the scene before him changed from one of the narrow rough and rain-etched Inca Trail to a grand open view across the high Andes. The sky was punctured by the treeless peak of Huayna Picchu, towering over the ruins of Machu Picchu, the Hidden City. In the purple Andean dawn, the brooding peak cast a long shadow over much of the city's skeletal remains.
Thomas leaned against the rocky face, peering down on the ruins below, the ancient city of the Inca. A sly smile growing on his face. He patted the hidden pocket inside his shirt, where he had kept the folded document borrowed from the archives in Cuzco that showed the cave high up Huayna Picchu where the last Inca king had hidden his treasury from the Spanish. He tossed the machetes over the edge and started down the path leading into the ruined city humming to himself as he sought out the authorities to make his report of the attempted robbery.
It was mid-afternoon when Thomas left the renovated ruin that served as the security headquarters for the site. He was happy to be out of the closed-in space. Reporting the bandit’s attempt had been frustrating; taking longer than expected. The Peruvian officials, skeptical at first, relented only after making two calls to Cuzco. The first verified Thomas' credentials as an archaeologist. The second discovered the connection between Masi and a known band of relic hunters. The authorities arranged for a rescue and law enforcement party to search for the three crippled thieves and released Thomas.
The sun beat down, heating the rock walls to a searing temperature. Stopping to soak his bandanna in an open fountain and splashing water on his head and face, Thomas turned his face to Huayna Picchu. In his mind, he began planning his ascent to the cave marked on the stolen document. Filling his canteen with the cold pure mountain water, he stepped off down the main trail toward the foot of the peak. He walked carelessly, appearing to be nothing more than another tourist.
Rounding the last turn before leaving the collection of tumbled ruins, Thomas saw a woman, dressed not in the expected colored shawl, black skirt and black felt bowler hat of the indigenous natives, but in blue jeans and a light-yellow blouse. She leaned against the last doorway, her head down as if slumbering in the heat of the day. Thomas moved to the side of the rock-paved path so as not to disturb her. As he passed by her, her head raised, and she smiled at him, her face familiar.
In the instant of Tommy’s recognition, the high-altitude Peruvian scene in his imaginary adventure dissolved back into the walls of his own room. “Mom?”
The woman leaning against the doorway of his room smiled and asked, “Off on another adventure, Tommy?” She motioned at the coffee table book in his lap, open to a classic scene of Machu Picchu.
The lad grinned up at his mother from his wheelchair. Hands crippled by Congenital Muscular Dystrophy holding the book open and deformed legs strapped to the frame of his chair were no match for the power of his imagination. “Yep. Another adventure of Thomas Gardner, archeologist, explorer and treasure hunter; searching for hidden Inca gold, this time.”
She bent down and kissed his cheek. Her voice was sweet and loving, “I hope you can get there some day to look for it, Tommy. But, for now, let's just settle for lunch. Okay?”
Closing the book resting on the table of his motorized wheelchair ended another foray by his robust and healthy alter-ego into adventure and the outdoors and returned Tommy to the reality of being trapped within a failing body. For a moment, his voice echoed that defeat, “Okay. What's for lunch?” Unwilling surrender to the inevitable, his voice took on a happy animation again. “How about something Peruvian?”