Norman added more quietly, “Some of us, that is.”
Sam’s smile faded. He replaced his hat, picturing Ralph’s face. Norman was right. It was inappropriate to cheer their own salvation when one of their friends was not beside them.
Maggie moved nearer to Sam. Her eyes were bright with both relief and sadness. She craned her neck to study the opening dome.
Sam put his arm around her. “I’m sure Ralph would be glad we escaped.”
“Maybe…” she mumbled softly.
He hugged her tighter. “The dead do not begrudge the living, Maggie—not Ralph, not even your friend Patrick Dugan back in Ireland…” And to this list, Sam silently added his own parents.
Maggie leaned into him, her voice tired. “I know, Sam. I’ve heard it all before.”
Holding her, he gave up on words. He knew that sometimes forgiving yourself for living was harder than facing death itself. It was something you had to do on your own.
Slowly now, the elevator climbed toward freedom, and the platform pushed up into the opened dome. Finally, it settled to a stop. The six sections of the dome had retracted fully. Underfoot, the click of latches bumped the floor, locking the platform in place once again. Below them, the whoosh of water receded, flushing down the shaft.
“We’re home,” Norman said.
After the dimness of the cavern, the late-afternoon sunlight was blinding, even when filtered through the heavy mists that seemed to cloak the skies overhead.
“But where the hell are we?” Sam asked, stepping forward. He craned his neck all around.
They appeared to be in some deep wooded valley. Towering steep walls of reddish black rock surrounded them on all sides, impossible to scale without mountaineering equipment and considerable skill. Overhead, mists roiled and obscured the sunlight to a bright haze.
“What’s that smell?” Norman asked.
The air, thin and warm, was tainted by the odor of rotten eggs. “Sulfur,” Maggie said. She turned in a slow circle, then pointed an arm. “Look!”
Near the north wall of the valley, a plume of steam shot skyward from a crack in the rock near its base. “A volcanic vent,” Sam said. This region of the Peruvian Andes was still geologically active, riddled with volcanic cones, some cold and silent, others still steaming. Earthquakes rattled through the mountains almost daily.
Maggie waved an arm. “This is no rift valley. We’re in some type of volcanic caldera.”
Norman limped closer, eyes on the rock walls. He frowned. “Great. Why is the phrase ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ coming to mind right now?”
Ignoring the photographer’s dour words, Sam studied the heights around them. “If you’re right, Maggie, we must be among that cluster of volcanic peaks east of our camp.” He nodded his head to a dark shadow to the south. Another cone, its rocky silhouette masked in steam, seemed to climb from the south wall itself, towering over their volcanic valley. “Look how many there are.”
Maggie nodded. “You’re probably right. This region’s never been explored. Too steep and dangerous to trek through.”
Denal spoke up, sticking close to Norman’s side. He wiped his brow with a shirtsleeve. “Warm in here,” he muttered.
Sam agreed, taking off his Stetson and swiping back his damp hair. At this altitude, wearing only his vest, he should be chilled as twilight approached, but instead the breeze was warm, almost balmy.
“It’s the steam vents,” Maggie explained. “They’re keeping this place heated and humid.”
“Like some tropical greenhouse,” Norman said, his eyes on the jungle surrounding the gold dome. “Look at all this growth.” He struggled to free his camera.
Around them spread a dense forest. Draped with vines, the tangle of trees spread in all directions. From their vantage point higher in the valley, they could spot a few open meadows, breaks in the jungle canopy, mostly near the ubiquitous volcanic vents. Otherwise, within the walls of the volcanic cone, the forest appeared undisturbed. Under its insulating canopy, a profusion of wild growth flourished. Giant ferns, with fronds longer than a man was tall, obscured the forest floor, while hundreds of orchids with fist-sized yellow blooms hung from the crooks of trees. Even some form of jungle rose climbed on thorny creepers along limbs and vines.
Norman snapped a few photographs, while the others wandered along the forest’s edge.
Within this verdant and flowered splendor, birds whistled and piped in alarm, disturbed by their presence. A small flock of blue-winged parrots darted across the misty skies. Closer, the barking calls of monkeys warned them away, echoing off the rock walls. Their tiny bodies darted and flew among the trees and vines, flashes of fiery fur and whipping tails.
Beyond this wall of greenery, the babble of water over rock promised the presence of some spring-fed creek nearby.
“It’s like some lost Eden,” Norman said.
Sam nodded, though a seed of worry took root. He remembered the Latin warning etched on the hematite bands by Francisco de Almagro: Beware the Serpent of Eden.
A similar thought must have passed through Maggie’s mind. Her lips were pinched sternly, and her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “We’ve got company,” she suddenly whispered.
Sam tensed, eyes instantly on the alert. “What?”
Maggie stood immobile, only her eyes moved, indicating a direction in which to look.
Behind them, a sudden grind of metal sounded. The dome was closing back up, their only means of retreat from the volcanic caldera vanishing.
Sam searched the section of jungle Maggie had indicated. Finally, he spotted a small face in the shadows, staring back at him. The figure must have known he had been spotted and rose from his crouch. He stepped from the dense thicket at the jungle’s edge. From other spots, seven more men slipped into the clearing around the gold dome.
Mocha-skinned and dark-eyed, the men were clearly of Quechan heritage. They stood only to about Sam’s shoulder, but bore spears a good head taller than the Texan. They wore traditional Indian garb: unadorned haura trousers and shirts fancifully decorated with parrot and condor feathers.
The leader, wearing a crimson headband, stepped forward and spoke sternly in his native tongue.
Denal translated, face scrunched. “He wants us to follow him.”
The small hunter turned and stepped back to the forest’s edge. He pushed aside the giant frond of a tree fern to reveal a hidden path. The man ducked under the leafy growth and started down the trail. The other hunters hung back to ensure Sam’s group followed.
Without any reason yet to fear them, Sam waved. “Let’s go… maybe they know a way back to the dig.” Still, as he eyed their long weapons, Sam cinched his Winchester more snugly over his shoulder. If trouble should arise, he wanted to be ready.
Denal touched Sam’s elbow. The boy’s eyes were narrowed in suspicion, too. He seemed about to say something, then shook his head and fished out a bent cigarette from a pocket. He mumbled something in his native tongue as he slipped the filter to his lips.
“What is it, Denal?”
“Something no right,” he grumbled but said nothing more. Ahead, the boy helped Norman under the frond and onto the path.
Sam followed last with Maggie beside him. As the jungle swallowed them up, they proceeded in silence for several minutes.
“What do you make of them?” Maggie finally whispered.
“They’re obviously a Quechan tribe. Hundreds like them live as hunter-gatherers out in the wilds.”
Maggie pointed a thumb back toward the clearing. “And they just ignore a dome made of beaten gold?”
Sam pondered her words. She was right. The hunters had seemed more shocked to see them than the wealth at their backs. Denal’s consternation also nagged at him. What was wrong here?
He studied the Indians as they marched onward. They moved silently, spears carried comfortably, pushing vines from their way. Soon the path crossed a small stream forded by a series of large stone blocks set in the flow. Who were these hunters?
The answer to his question appeared around a bend in the path.
The thick jungle opened, and a village appeared as if by magic. The cluster of stone homes surrounded a central plaza and spread in terraced steps up into the jungle itself; almost all of the homes were half-buried in the growth, shadowed by the high canopy. Jungle flowers festooned stone rooftops and grew in planted yards. The fragrant blooms negated the sulfurous smell of the volcanic vents.
Sam stared, his mouth gaping open. Llamas and small pigs moved around the narrow streets, while men and women came to doorways and windows to gawk equally at the four strangers. There had to be over a hundred inhabitants here, dressed in poncholike cushmas, or sleeved shirts with small capes, or long Indian anacu tunics.
The homes were as equally decorated as their inhabitants: lintels and window edges were sculpted elaborately, while silver and gold adornments glinted in the setting sun’s haze.
Norman limped ahead, leaning on Denal’s shoulder. From a doorway, one of the younger women, dressed in a wool llikla shawl, nervously approached Norman. She held out a loose wreath of blue flowers woven with yellow parrot feathers. The thin photographer smiled and bowed down. Taking the opportunity, the woman darted forward and slipped the handwoven adornment over the photographer’s head. Norman straightened as she giggled, a hand over her lips, and danced away.
Norman turned to Denal, fingering the gift with an embarrassed grin. “Does this clash with my shirt?” he asked, and limped onward. The photographer seemed oblivious to what they had stumbled upon.
Sam and Maggie, though, stood frozen at the village’s edge. In his mind, Sam stripped away the jungle growth from the homes and erased the people and animals from the streets. He recognized the layout of this town. The central plaza, the spoked avenues, the terraced homes… it was the same spread as the necropolis below!
Maggie grabbed his elbow. “Do you know what this place is?” she whispered, staring up at Sam with huge eyes. “This is not some Quechan tribe, eking out a fist-to-mouth existence.”