Chapter SIX

THE next two days kept me pretty busy. We had decided to go to Pepoztlan on the following Thursday which was just three days ahead of us. There was a lot to arrange. We had to get Myra a dress that would make her look like a Sun Virgin. That had to come from Mexico City and after some trouble Juden got it for us. I reckon his nurse friend had a hand in getting it, because I’m sure Juden would never have found such a humdinger by himself. Even Myra was pleased.

The dress was a cross between a nightgown and an Aimee McPherson surplice. It was simple, but it fitted her and she looked swell in it. There’s nothing like white silk to set off blonde hair and Myra looked like she had never said a bad word or done a bad deed when she got it on.

“That kid looks like a saint,” Doc said to me when she had gone to take it off. The old guy was nearly crying. “She looks like a saint.”

“If you mean a Saint Bernard, I’m with you,” Bogle grunted. “That camouflage don’t pull wool over my eyes.”

I didn’t worry what Bogle thought. He didn’t count. Ansell was right. Myra looked the part and if she didn’t startle this Indian fella then I’d give up.

Apart from fixing her up, rehearsing her in the part and choosing a few good showy tricks out of her repertoire, I had to fix the kidnapping angle.

This wasn’t so easy. I wasn’t going to let either Ansell or Bogle in on this. I had to find an excuse so that I could get into touch with this Mexican I knew and wise him up what was wanted.

Once I got hold of him, it was easy. He jumped at the idea. I’d known him for some time. His name was Bastino and he was lust a small-time bandit who got nowhere. I’d done him a good turn once and I knew I could trust him. All he had to do was to kidnap Myra from the inn where I had arranged for us to stay at Pepoztlan after she had returned from her trip to Quinti. I fixed everything and promised to let him know just when to pull it off. I gave him a hundred bucks as a down payment and promised him another three hundred if he pulled it off.

The set-up looked sweet to me. But, on the morning that we were to move to Pepoztlan, something happened t6t altered the whole plan.

We were just getting into the car when a guy from the Post Office came running over with his eyes popping out of his head.

“Now, what’s the trouble?” I said, going halfway to meet him.

He gave me a telegram and stood back, watching my face with excited interest. I shoved a half a buck into his hand and returned to the car, opening the telegram as I walked.

It was from Juden. When I read what he had to say, I cursed softly under my breath. The other three watched me.

“This tears it,” I said, leaning into the car. “Revolution’s broken out in the hills and I’ve got to cover it.”

“What do you mean… revolution?” Ansell said, sharply.

“Another uprising,” I said in disgust. “Can’t these guys keep the peace for five minutes? A bunch of bandits swooped on some Federal troops and cut their heads off. Federal troops are on their way from the capital to deal with them. I’ve got to get over there and give a report on the battle. It may last a week.” “You can’t do that,” Ansell protested. “I’ve fixed everything with Quintl. If we don’t loose Myra on him now, we’ll never do it.”

I thought for a moment. He was right. But, on the other hand, I’d got to look after the Recorder. The great American public would want to hear more about these Federal soldiers who had had their heads cut off. You don’t read about a little thing like that every day.

“Well, I’m sorry,” I said. “But you’ll have to do this without me. It’s simple enough and I think I ought to be through in a few days. I’ll meet you at Pepoztlan. Get Myra to see this Quintl and then wait at the inn for me. Okay?”

Myra said, “So you’re going to walk out on me after all?”

“Now, don’t make it difficult,” I pleaded. “You’ll do fine. I know you will.” I put my hand on hers, “And wait for me, kid, I want to see you again.”

“If you ain’t in a hurry, I’ll get out and heave up,” Bogle said, grimacing in disgust. “This sloppy talk gives me a pain.”

That seemed to settle it. Myra, her face hardening, started the Cadillac. “Okay,” she said.

“Run after your stupid little revolution. Do you think I care?” and she drove away fast, leaving a cloud of dust behind her.

That was that.

As I might have expected, the Federal troops made a mess of it. When they got to the place where their comrades had been decapitated there was no sign of the bandits and no sign of any bodies. I wasted a couple of days riding around with them, and then they got sick of it and gave up. All I got out of it was a photograph of the place and a dreary report of the unsuccessful hunt. I sent those off, said good-bye to the Captain of the troop who seemed glad to see me go and rode over to Pepoztlan as fast as I could go.

Pepoztlan was a tiny village on the mountain side. The main road had been hewn out of the mountain itself and the few houses of pink stone overlooked the exposed plateau beyond which lay the Indian settlement.

I found Ansell and Bogle resting in the shade at the inn. It wasn’t much of a place, but the wine was good and they did manage to carve up an occasional chicken. I’d been there before, so I knew more or less what I was in for.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon. Since Myra was to see Quintl on the previous Thursday, I thought the whole thing had been settled. My next immediate job was to get in touch with Bastino and fix the kidnapping.

It came as a surprise when I rode into the patio to find only Ansell and Bogle there.

I slid off my horse, tossed the reins to an Indian and went over to them.

“Where’s Myra?” I asked and I admit I felt anxious.

Both Ansell and Bogle looked a little sheepish. It was Ansell who did the talking. “She’s still there,” he said. “Sit down and have a drink.”

“Yeah, this is real tiger’s breath,” Bogle said, filling a horn mug and shoving it into my hand.

“What do you mean… she’s still there?”

“She’s made a hit with Quintl,” Ansell said uneasily. “They wanted her to stay.”

I looked from one to the other, “I don’t get it. How long do you think she’s going to stay there?”

Bogle took off his hat and scratched his head, “Brother,” he said, “them Indians scared the pants off me. I didn’t want to argue with them.”

“Quiet, Bogle,” Ansell said sharply. “Let me explain.”

“You’d better,” I said, feeling mad. “What the hell’s been happening?”

“The truth is, she overdid it!’ Ansell said. “I warned her, but she kept pulling tricks and I guess the Indians fell for her. They think she’s a reincarnated goddess.”

“So what?”

“They won’t let her go,” Ansell said miserably. “We tried to get her away, but they got nasty about it.”

“Knives,” Bogle said, with a little shiver. “Great big knives as long as my arm. I tell you, Bud, they scared me.”

“So you left her, eh?” I said, feeling blood pounding in my ears. “That was a swell thing to do. What sort of men are you—you yellow-gutted monkeys!”

Ansell mopped his face with his handkerchief. “I was waiting for you to come and then I thought we’d turn out the Federal troops,” he explained.

“They’ll take a month to get going,” I said angrily. “I thought you knew this Indian. Why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t trust him?”

“It’s not that,” Ansell said quickly. “I’d trust him with my life. It was her fault. You ought to have seen the tricks she did. They were remarkable. I’ve never seen…”

I got to my feet. “We’re getting guns and we’re going right over there and we’ll bring her back. Do you get it?”

Bogle’s eyes popped. “Just the three of us?” he said faintly.

“Just the three of us,” I returned. “Get horses, while I get the guns.”

“You heard what I said about the knives?” Bogle said. “Great big stickers, as long as my arm.”

“I heard,” I returned. “We got this girl into the mess. We’ll get her out of it.”

I left them and dug out the innkeeper. “What have you got in the way of guns, pal?” I asked, after we had shaken hands and patted each other.

“Guns?” His little eyes widened, then seeing my look, he grinned. “More trouble, senor?” he said. “Always trouble with the white senor.”

“Slow up on the chatter and give me some action,” I said shoving him towards the house.

I got action and I got three express rifles and three .38 automatics.

By the time I got back the other two had found horses. I gave than a gun and automatic each and then climbed on to my horse.

“You wouldn’t like to put it off until to-morrow?” Ansell said hopefully. “It’s going to be hot on the plateau right now.”

“It’ll be hot all right,” I said and rode out of the patio. The way to the Indian settlement lay across the exposed plateau which was broken only by patches of forest. There was hardly any shade.

After an hour of heat and flies we came to the Indian village. The sordid settlement shocked me. There were six mud huts, thatched with banana leaves. They stood forlornly in the bright sunlight and the whole place seemed deserted.

I jerked my horse to a standstill and sat staring at the huts. Doc and Bogle came up and halted their animals by my side.

“Is this it?” I said. “Are you sure this is the place?”

“Yeah,” Bogle said, wrinkling his nose. “Not like Palm Beach, is it?” He rested his arms on the saddle and leaned forward. “Not the kind of glamour parlour Goldiocks is used to.”

“Button up!” I said, feeling furious with Ansell for even bringing Myra to such a dump, let alone leaving her here. If I’d gone with them, we wouldn’t have gone through with it.

Ansell slid off his horse and walked slowly down the beaten path between the huts. Neither

Bogle nor I moved. We sat, with our rifles forward, watching him.

“No one about,” Ansell said, coming back. “Maybe they’re hunting or something.”

In spite of the heat, I suddenly felt my flesh creep, as if a cold hand had touched me.

“You’d better find her,” I said quietly.

“Quintl’s got a place further in the forest,” Ansell said, urging his horse forward.

We followed him.

At the edge of the forest, amid scrub and stones, stood a solid little building made of grey rock.

“This is it,” Ansell said, dismounting.

Bogle looked round. “This ain’t a country to live in,” he said uneasily. “There’s something about this dump I don’t like. Do you feel it, Bud?”

“Don’t be a damned baby,” I said sharply, although I, too, disliked the dank atmosphere of the settlement. I guess it was the complete tillness and the silence that gave me the jumps. Even the trees were motionless.

I dismounted and walked up to the rotten wooden door of the building and thumped on it with my clenched list. The heavy silence was broken only by the sound of my fist.

I stopped and listened. Sweat ran down my face with the exertion of beating on the door. Ansell and Bogle stood a few yards behind me, watching.

“There’s no one there,” I said, stepping back. “They’ve taken her away.”

“I can smell something like a dead horse,” Bogle said suddenly, and he began drawing great breaths of air through his nose.

Ansell said: “For God’s sake, keep quiet.” He joined me at the door. “There must be someone there,” he went on, pressing against the door. “There’s no lock. It’s bolted on the inside.”

I drew back and aimed a kick at the door. It shivered but held firm. I don’t know why it was, but I suddenly felt scared. I felt that something was going to happen over which I had no control, but in spite of this I was going to get into that hut.

I turned to Bogle, “Get off that damned horse and help me, you useless punk.”

Glad to have something to do, Bogle hurriedly dismounted and came over. He examined the door and then drawing back, he crashed his shoulder against it. The door creaked loudly and Bogle’s second charge shattered the bolt and the door crashed open.

A violent, nauseating smell seeped out of the hut. We staggered back before it.

“What is it?” I said, holding my hand over my mouth and nose.

“Someone’s been dead in there for quite a time,” Ansell said, his face going pale.

Bogle turned green, “I gotta weak stomach,” he wailed, sitting down abruptly on the grass.

“I can’t stand this. I’m going to heave.”

I glared round at Ansell. “She’s not dead, is she?” I said.

“Don’t get excited,” Ansell said, struggling with his own nausea. “You wait here. I’ll go in.” He drew a deep breath and peered timidly into the darkness. His eyes, dazzled by the bright sunlight, could see nothing.

I shoved him aside. “Get out of my way,” I said, and walked into the awful, stinking oven of darkness.

I stood just inside the room, breathing through my mouth, feeling the sweat running from me. At first, I couldn’t see anything, then as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom I made out a figure sitting on the floor, propped up against the wall. It was Quintl.

The old Indian was wrapped in a dirty blanket. His head was sunk low on his chest and his hands lay stiffly on the mud floor. I fumbled for a match and with a shaky hand, I scratched a light from the rock wall. Moving forward, I peered down at the Indian, holding the little flame high above my head.

The whole of Quintl’s face moved in putrefaction. Even the hair on his head seethed with putrefying life.

I started back, dropped the match and half blundered to the door. I had never seen such a disgusting, sickening sight and it seemed to draw my nerves into tight, writhing wires.

I stood gulping in the doorway, too sick even to speak. Ansell shook my arm. “What is it?” he said, his voice was high pitched. “What are you looking like that for?”

“It’s the Indian,” I said, trying to control my heaving fluttering stomach. “He’s dead. Don’t look at him. It’s the filthiest thing I’ve seen.” I looked back into the darkness, my heart pounding against my side. “Where’s Myra? There’s no one in there—just the old Indian.”

“There’s another room,” Ansell said, “Look, over to the right.”

I fumbled for another match, struck it and went into the room again. I didn’t look at the Indian. I could just see a dark opening at the far end of the room and I walked slowly towards it. Ansell followed me.

I paused at the doorway and peered in. The light from the match pierced the thick darkness for a few feet. I moved forward slowly and I stopped just by the door. The flame of the match flickered and went out.

I had a sudden feeling that this wasn’t real. It was like a nightmare of ghostly unknown things that pressed round me in the darkness. If I had been alone, I should have run away. I should have turned and stumbled into the bright sunlight and I would never have gone back into that ghastly, frightening darkness. But Ansell was behind me. I could feel his hand on my arm and somehow I felt I could stand there with him so close to me.

“Do you hear anything?” he whispered.

I listened. The silence was so complete that all I could hear was the pounding of my heart and the little hurried gasps from Ansell.

I fumbled for a match and the bright flame lit the mom for a moment, then it died down and the shadows closed in on me again.

In that moment of light I had seen a long starved shadow glide away from the light of the match. It was soundless, like a frightened spirit, and when the flame flickered and went out I was scared.

“There’s someone in here,” I said. “Doc, where are you?”

“Take it easy,” Ansell said, again touching my arm. “I’m right behind you. Who was it?”

“I don’t know.” I found my hands were shaking so violently that I couldn’t strike another match. I pressed the box into Ansell’s fingers. “Get a light. There’s someone or something in here.”

“An animal?” Ansell whispered, his voice quavered.

“I don’t know,” I said between my teeth and drew the .38. The match flared up. For a brief second, we again had a clear view of the room. Myra lay on a stretcher bed. Her eyes were closed and she was quite still. Something black and shapeless moved above her head, but as I stepped forward, it dissolved into dancing shadows made by the light of the match.

“Hold it higher,” I said.

I could see now. There was no one else in the room except ourselves and Myra.

I shall never forget that brief glimpse I had of her. In the white, sparkling dress, her hair draped over her shoulders, and her cold, bard little face uptilted towards the roof of the rock building, she looked like a beautiful Greek goddess.

But, right now, I hadn’t eyes for that. Fear had seized me and dug into my brain with chilly, steel fingers.

“There was someone in here,” I said, gripping Ansell’s arm. “I know there was. Where did he go? Doc, hold that match up. He must be somewhere here.”

Ansell paid no attention. He bent over Myra. “She’s all right,” he said in a dazed voice.

“She’s asleep! Asleep in this stink.” He shook her gently, but she did not open her eyes.

“Wake up!” he said, shaking her more roughly. “Wake up!”

I blundered over and pushed him away. Feverishly, I pulled Myra into a sitting position. Putting my arm under her knees, I swung her off the bed.

As I did so, something happened that I can never forget. Even now, I sit up in bed sometimes in a cold sweat when I dream about it. It had all the qualities of a bad nightmare.

As I pulled Myra off the bed, I felt something trying to get her away from me. It was as if Myra had become suddenly heavy and I couldn’t quite hold her any more. It was as if two long arms were holding my legs so that it was difficult to walk.

But, I struggled on somehow and yelling to Bogle to get the horses, I came reeling out into the sunshine holding Myra tightly against me.

Bogle had scrambled to his feet. His eyes, like poached eggs, showed his panic “What’s the matter?” he croaked.

Ansell shot out of the hut, white to the lips. He came running over to me and when he could get his breath he stammered: “Let me look at her.”

“You leave her alone,” I said. “You’ve done enough already. Here, Bogle, hold her while I mount.” I climbed up on to my horse and Bogle hoisted Myra on to the saddle.

“What’s the matter with her?” Bogle said. There was a note of anxiety in his voice.

“I don’t know,” I said, wheeling away from him. “Let’s get out of here. If I have any more of this stink, I’ll go crazy.”

Kicking my horse into a canter, I rode out across the broad plateau. Ansell and Bogle followed closely behind me.

Once clear of the Indian village, I pulled up in the last of the shade before crossing the plateau. I slid to the ground, supporting Myra and made her as comfortable as I could under a tree.

“Take a look at her, Doc,” I said uneasily, holding her warm hand in mine.

Ansell came and knelt beside me, while Bogle gathered the bridles of our horses and stood uneasily, shifting from one foot to the other.

“What’s the matter with her?” I asked. “Do something, will you?”

Ansell took her pulse, raised her eyelid and sat back on his heels. “She’s in some kind of trance,” he said slowly. “We’ll have to get her to bed as quickly as we can. There’s nothing I can do here.” He looked at her again and scratched his chin. “She’s quite normal. Pulse good, breathing regular.” He shook his head. “We’ll have to go on. The risk of sunstroke’s too great out here.”

“What’s been happening?” I said. “Why is she like this? What’s the explanation?”

Ansell stood up. “I don’t know. It’s no use talking now. We’ve got to get her back to the inn.”

I picked her up again. “Do you think she’ll stand the journey?”

“Don’t worry, man. I tell you there’s nothing the matter with her. She’s in a hypnotic trance. She’ll wake up in a few hours.”

I looked at him searchingly, saw the worried look in his eyes and I felt a chill of despair. “I hope you’re right,” I said and gave her to him to hold while I mounted.

The journey across the plateau was hard going. The beat cut into us and I found Myra’s weight exhausting, but we made it at last.

Myra was still unconscious when we reached the inn.

Bogle said uneasily: “I don’t like seeing her like that even though she’s a sour puss. It don’t seem natural.”

While he was helping me dismount, Ansell went on in and called the innkeeper. He came out in a few minutes. “They’re getting a room ready for her,” he said. “Bring her up. I’ll show you where it is.”

The innkeeper’s wife was waiting in a small, quiet room which was cool and shady and flowers stood on a table by the window.

I put Myra gently on the bed. “Look after her,” I said to the woman. “Get her to bed.”

Leaving Ansell to help the woman, I went downstairs and joined Bogle on the verandah. I ordered two large beers and then sat down a little wearily on the iron bench by Bogle’s side.

“Think she’ll be all right?” Bogle asked.

I was surprised at the concern in his voice.

“I guess so,” I said, not feeling much like talking. “I don’t know.”

There was a pause, then Bogle said: “What do you think was in that hut?”

I mopped my face and neck with my handkerchief. “I haven’t thought about it,” I returned shortly, because I didn’t want to think about it.

He fidgeted for a moment. “You don’t believe that witchcraft stuff Doc was talking about, do you?”

“Hell, no!”

He seemed relieved. “Do you think she’s got the snake-bite dope?”

I’d forgotten all about that. I sat up with a jerk. I remembered that I’d have Bastino on my hands to-morrow. He would be coming down from the hills to discuss the final move for the kidnapping. Thinking of Myra up there in that little room and seeing in my mind her white, strained face made the kidnapping impossible. I couldn’t submit her to another shock. Then, on the other hand, there was the 25,000 dollars I’d have to pass up and maybe get fired for queering Maddox’s stunt.

It seemed to me that I was in a sweet jam, all of a sudden.

Before I could begin to think about it, Ansell came down.

“How is she?” I asked, hurriedly getting to my feet.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Ansell said, sitting down. He snapped his fingers at the little Mexican girl who acted as waiter and pointed to my half-finished beer. “She’ll be okay in a couple of hours. She’s beginning to recover now.” He shook his head, “I can’t make this out. How did Quintl die? Was he wounded or anything?”

I grimaced. “I don’t even want to think about him,” I said. “How long do you think he’s been dead?”

“I don’t know. In that heat, without ventilation, he need not have been dead very long.”

“Do you realize that this might affect her mind?” I said suddenly. “We’ve done a hell of a thing to that girl. There was something filthy in that hut. I swear there was someone in there when I looked into the room where she was lying.”

“It’s easy to imagine a thing like that in the light of a match,” Ansell said, quietly. “There was no one there except Myra. I looked. There was no place for anyone to hide.”

“I’m not explaining it, I’m telling you,” I said angrily. “I don’t like any of it. Do you know what? I feel we’re butting into something we don’t understand.”

The Mexican girl brought Ansell his beer and he took a long pull at it. “You’re on edge,” he said. “We’re not butting into anything. That’s no way to talk.”

I looked at him, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. “You’re lying, Doc,” I said evenly. “You’re as scared as I am. Only you haven’t got the guts to admit it. Something happened in that hut that killed the old Indian. Some power of evil’s loose. I felt it behind me all across the plateau. Just like someone was trying to get her away from me. Just like someone’s hands were pulling her out of the saddle.”

Bogle dropped his glass. “Wadjer mean?” he gasped, his eyes bolting out of his head.

“I wish I knew,” I said, kicking back my chair. “I’m going up to see her.”

I found Myra lying in bed. A small electric fan whirred busily just above her head and the blind was drawn against the hot afternoon sun.

I drew up a chair. As I sat down, she opened her eyes and blinked lazily.

I said: “Hello.”

A puzzled frown knitted her brow and she raised her head, looking at me. “Hello,” she said.

“What are you doing in here?”

“Oh, I just looked in,” I said, smiling at her. “You feeling all right?”

She pushed down the sheet and raised herself on her elbows. She was wearing a pair of Ansell’s pyjamas. They were a lot too big for her.

“Am I supposed to be ill?” she asked, then the caught sight of the pyjamas. “What in the world…?”

The puzzled expression changed to alarm. “How did I get into these? What’s been happening?”

“Don’t get excited,” I said. “You’re back in the inn again. We came and took you away from Quintl. You remember him?”

“Why, of course. Why did you take me away? Why didn’t I wake up?” She ran her slim fingers through her hair. What’s been happening? Don’t sit there looking like a tired sardine. Tell me.”

“We found you asleep and we couldn’t wake you. So we just carried you off.”

“You couldn’t wake me?”

“Suppose you tell me what happened to you. Then I’ll know where we are.”

She frowned, “Why, nothing happened to me,” she said. “At least, I don’t think so.” She pressed her eyelids with her fingers and frowned. “You know I really can’t remember. Isn’t that stupid? The old Indian rather frightened me. He liked my tricks. Oh, I gave him the show of my life. I was never better. I wish you could have seen his face. I was a tremendous success. Then he took me to a little rock building. I thought Doc and Samuel were following, but I didn’t see them again. He left me in this place and I was lonely. I really hated it, especially when it got dark. I lay on a kind of bed and went to sleep. I don’t remember anything else.”

I found a little trickle of sweat running down into my collar and I patted my neck with my handkerchief. “What happened the next day?” I asked.

“To-day, you mean? I’m telling you. I went to sleep and here I am.”

“I see. You don’t remember anything?”

She shook her head. “Nothing happened,” she repeated with a frown. “I just went to sleep.”

“You’ve been asleep for two days,” I said, watching her.

“Two days? Why, you’re crazy!”

Then seeing the way I looked at her she went on, “You wouldn’t kid me, would you?”

“No. I wouldn’t kid you,” I said.

She suddenly laughed. “Well, maybe I was tired. I feel kind of weak now. Will you leave me for a little while? I want to think and then I’d like something to eat.”

I got up. “Sure,” I said. “You take it easy.”

Ansell and Bogle looked at me anxiously when I got downstairs. “It’s no good,” I said.

“She doesn’t remember anything.”

“You don’t mean to say she just slept all the time?” Ansell demanded. “But what about the snake-bite remedy? What happened to that?”

“Aw, quit asking questions,” I said, suddenly sore, and I went into the kitchen to order her a meal.

When it was ready, Bogle met me in the passage as I came from the kitchen with a tray in my hands.

“Can I take that up to her?” he said, scowling at me fiercely.

“You?” I nearly dropped the tray.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Bogle demanded fiercely. “You and Dce’s been up, ain’t you? Why can’t I have a look?”

I grinned at him. “She’s not a bad kid, is she?” I said.

“Bad?” Bogle snatched the tray out of my hands. “That ain’t the word for it.” But he tiptoed up the stairs as if they were made of paper.

As I turned into the lounge, there was a sudden wild yell from upstairs and a crash of broken china.

Doc and I looked at each other in alarm and then we dashed for the stairs.

Bogle came blundering down the passage, his face white and his eyes bolting out of his head. He tried to pass us, but I grabbed him and spun him round.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” I demanded, shaking him.

“Don’t go in there,” he quavered, sweat running down his fat face. “She’s floating round the room. Floating up to the ceiling,” and shoving me aside, he continued his mad flight.

“He’s gone crazy,” I said, staring after him. “What’s he mean, floating round the room?” Ansell didn’t say anything, but I could see by his eyes, he was scared.

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