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A Matter of Survival
It was a place where the sun minds its own business, barely filtering to the ground through the thick green canopy. A place where the wind only occasionally ducks from behind a tree, and only to whisper the secrets carried on scents. A place where, at night, even the moon glances down only on rare occasions, and always with a bit of embarrassment.
Like all places on Earth, it was peaceful by default, calm in temperament, and dangerous only when chance or fate—call it what you will—took an interest.
This place was humid day and night, and most often thunder rumbled in the distance, but always from different directions. The leaves of the canopy dripped water constantly.
At other times, as they had earlier this very day and for days previous, the column would move more slowly. At the front, Gabriel Orosco and Manuel Gallegos would take greater care to hack away more of the foliage with their machetes, making the passage easier and drier for the others.
But there was no time for that now. Safeguarding the column was of primary importance.
Behind them in the third position, Juan Pedroza cleared whatever they missed, if anything. Next came the first segment of women, six in all. Then three more men, then La Abuela and two other women. El Abuelo and two other men brought up the rear. A c0lumn of eighteen. The survivors of a trip into the distant past. A trip gone horribly awry.
The brush through which Gabriel hacked and through which he and the others rapidly moved caught the drops and redirected them to the sleeves of jackets and shirts and the trousers and legs of the column of men and women. The streaks and blotches of water quickly darkened the khaki.
The women who wore trousers and shirts, which was most of them, suffered the same effect as the men. Those who wore skirts, wider and looser than the trousers, weren’t as bothered by the water, but in exchange they occasionally lost a bit of a skirt to a barren, snagging branch.
The roots crisscrossing the jungle floor caused the members of the troupe to stumble more than once, especially when they first started. But speed was necessary and they learned quickly to maintain a few feet of distance from one person to the next. That enabled them to move at a good pace. When one stumbled, the next would catch him, keep him upright and move him along.
The need to hurry was not something anyone had to say. Neither Gabriel, who was the leader of the troupe, nor El Abuelo, the chieftain in matters of philosophy and life, had uttered such an order.
An order had not been necessary.
The sudden appearance of the massive creature in the tall-grass clearing a mile or so back provided its own impetus. The grass there, having ample sunlight, grew to the height of a man’s shoulders. The wide blades were as sharp as razors and as damp with the skyfall as the air itself.
When the thing stepped out of the jungle three hundred yards away to their right, Gabriel and the rest had stopped to rest. Fortunately, they were almost across the clearing when they stopped.
Gabriel gaped as he stood, his eyes wide. Then he struck immediately into the jungle, and the others followed.
Only El Abuelo waited at the edge of the clearing as the others passed him by. When only two men remained to follow him, he too plunged into the jungle. El Abuelo was the honorary rear guard. The two men would carry him if it became necessary.
The memory of the creature kept the sense of urgency strong, and the column moved without complaint.
When the beast first crashed into the clearing from the edge of the jungle, it turned its head from side to side. Each time, its gaze passed above them, as if without seeing.
But it could smell too.
From a distance of close to three hundred yards, it pointed its snout at the part of the clearing where the humans had rested. It spoke only once, and its voice was a hiss that that might have issued from the depths of hell.
It lifted one ponderous foot from the ground and started across the clearing, its goal the source of a scent. A six-foot-wide swath of grass fell before each sweeping footfall. But before the second one landed, El Abuelo and his minders had ducked into the jungle.
Only El Abuelo and the two men behind him had seen the creature focus on the spot where they had rested. Only they had seen it raise its foot and start in that direction. But the other, more focused images of the creature were just as vibrant and remained lodged in the minds of everyone in the troupe.
The creature had the head of a lizard, but it was at least two feet wide and thirty feet off the ground. The teeth in the yawning maw were as long as a man is tall and a fourth as thick. The tongue was evil, and forked like that of a snake. The eyes were cruel, glistening black marbles, the extended snout thick and knobby, the neck a thick, ridged connection to its torso.
From the narrow upper torso dangled two small, misshapen and stunted arms. The claws on the end of those were half the length of a man’s legs and looked as sharp as those of a cat.
The back of the torso was ridged as well, and the whole thing slanted toward the ground like a long, stretched egg with the larger part at the bottom. To that were attached two thick legs, thick as the trunks of very large trees, with more claws at the ends.
From the base of its torso, which still was several feet off the ground, extended a tail. Where it attached to the torso, it too was the size of a large tree. Toward the tip it dwindled down to the snapping end of a whip. With every swipe of that tail, the creature crushed twenty feet of grass in an arc.
At the head of the column, Gabriel walked quickly with a smooth pace in the necessary tempo of a forced march. The others variously walked and ran in an effort to keep up. He slashed with his machete with almost every step, quickly clearing the larger snags in the foliage.
Behind him, Manuel slashed as well, clearing whatever Gabriel had missed.
Breathing heavily, Gabriel glanced over his left shoulder. “Are there sounds?” He paused for a breath. “Is it coming?”
Manuel didn’t respond, but glanced back and repeated the whispered question.
Behind him, Juan repeated the process, and so the question made it back to the middle of the column and beyond.
A long moment later, the response had made its way forward.
“There are sounds,” Juan said to Manuel. “It is coming.”
Manuel repeated the message to Gabriel and added, “Can we outrun it?”
For a moment, Gabriel was silent, save his labored breathing.
The creature was powerful. Its legs were strong, and its footing was sure. It would force its way through the jungle with its brawn. Little in the jungle would even slow its progress, much less snag it or cause it to take an alternate route.
The only good news was that they couldn’t yet hear the beast themselves. But for every seven or eight steps they took, the creature took only one. Eventually it would close on them.
He hoped the rear guard would do their best to protect El Abuelo. The old man’s wisdom would be a great loss.
So could they outrun it?
Quietly enough that only Manuel and perhaps Juan would hear, he said, “No.”
Gabriel continued to hack through the brush as if he hadn’t heard the response and as if he hadn’t spoken. There was no time for more talk, and no necessity.
His forearms knotted and released as he repeatedly slashed with the machete and forced his way through the brush. His mind was filled with a hundred scenarios, a thousand conversations. He searched them for relevance and finally brought his mentor’s words to the front. They were delivered in his youth as the three secrets to winning a battle:
Know who you are. It doesn’t matter who the enemy is if you know who you are.
Know your own abilities and don’t overreach them.
Be aware that most men will try to overreach theirs.
The three secrets were intended as advice for overcoming other humans, but there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t work against other creatures just as well.
The others had heard the sounds of pursuit earlier. Now the dimmest reflections of those sounds reached Juan.
He touched Manuel’s shoulder. “Did you hear?”
Manuel nodded, and as he touched Gabriel’s shoulder, Gabriel said, “Yes.”
Gabriel fell silent, continued to hack his way through the brush and vines. He continued to run the scenarios through his mind. He thought of their pursuer. Most believe themselves greater than they are.
The thing would not be deterred. It had their scent and it was following their path.
But in a way, that was good. As he chose their path, so did he choose the creature’s path.
And he knew other facts. Few other creatures, if any, would stand in the way of the creature. Fewer still would attempt to deter it from a meal for fear of becoming a meal themselves. The thing was strong, and it was used to being unstoppable.
But that would give it a confidence that was at least partially false.
Most believe themselves greater than they are. Therein lies their weakness.
So what did he have that the creature didn’t? Only the ability to think. That and the agility and determination of one who was fighting for his life and the lives of others.
As he continued to hack with his machete, over his shoulder, he said, “Watch for a defensible position.”
The jungle was filled with rocky outcroppings and ancient temples, overgrown with vines.
He formulated a plan, but it would require him to be taller than the creature.
Had he been alone, he could easily climb a tree. He could easily attain a height taller than the thing that was chasing them. But there was no guarantee it would pass close enough beneath him. In the alternative, it might inadvertently ram the tree he was hiding in and jar him loose. And on the ground, he had no chance.
Besides, he might well be able to get himself, Manuel and Juan into a tree before the thing arrived, but what of the others? He was as responsible for their safety and defense as his own. And even if he had time and could get all of them into a tree, or even a few trees, doing so would render them nothing more than fruit.
The creature would have the benefit of knowing where they were and the luxury of time to wait for them. They wouldn’t be able to outlast him. With a ready food source and taunted by their scent, he wouldn’t go anywhere. Eventually the humans would descend, or they would slip and fall. Or the creature might ram the trees repeatedly until he shook one or more of the humans loose.
The members of the column would be nothing but live bait.
The benefit of knowing where they were. They would be live bait.
For a moment, he caught his breath, as if to continue rasping might dislodge the thought.
Bait. That’s exactly what he needed.
He needed for the creature to be able to see the humans, but in a place where he couldn’t get at them easily. And he needed to be above the beast.
As he continued to hack his way forward, again he turned his head to one side. “A temple, maybe. A tall one. Or a tall outcropping of rock.”
Manuel reached forward, touched Gabriel lightly on the shoulder to let him know he’d heard him. “You have a plan?”
Gabriel nodded. “I know how to defeat it.”
It wasn’t exactly wishful thinking, but the statement sounded more confident than Gabriel felt. Still, if they were to have a chance, he would have to be above the creature.
Moments later, they plunged from the jungle into another, much smaller clearing.
Behind them, the sounds of the thing crashing through the jungle were louder, closer.
The clearing was no more than seventy or eighty yards across. The grass was as high here as in the first clearing, the leaves as damp and sharp.
Breathing heavily, Manuel tapped Gabriel’s right shoulder. “There,” he said.
Gabriel looked to the right. On the far side of the clearing, no more than fifty yards away, was a heavy stone structure. Its base was far broader than its top, the sides angling steeply upward. But even taking into account the distortion provided by the distance, the top couldn’t be more than twenty feet high.
“No,” Gabriel said. “Exactly like that, but twice as tall. Even a rock outcropping will do.”
From behind Manuel, Juan said, “Gabriel, go south! I recognize that temple. There are others to the south.”
In quieter times, Gabriel would has asked whether he was sure. But this was no time to be indecisive.
He turned left, raced through ten yards of tall grass, and began hacking into the jungle again.
From behind them, the crashes of falling trees were even less muted than before. The massive animal was getting closer.
Manuel said, “You go. I’ll rejoin you along the trail. I’ll come in from the right.” And he broke away. He raced through the tall grass to the west, his machete slashing as he went.
When Manuel was ten or fifteen yards along his new path, the end of the column came into the clearing.
Manuel stopped. He watched as El Abuelo and his two minders plunged into the path Gabriel had carved, then quickly stripped his shirt from his torso. It was soaked with his scent in the form of sweat and the water from the leaves of brush and grass. He waved it wildly in the still air, brushing as much grass with it as he could. Then he tossed it into the air, turned and continued west, mowing a wide swath through the grass with his machete as he went.
The sounds of falling trees and heavily rustling brush was getting louder. Loud enough that Manuel could no longer tell how far away the creature was.
He continued running.
The blades of grass he’d missed with his machete as he ran sliced thin cuts on his hands and arms and along his ribs. Still, the blood scent could only help with his ruse.
He drew an increasingly shallow angle toward the jungle on his left. When he reached the pinnacle of the angle, he was some sixty yards beyond the point where Gabriel had led the others back into the jungle. He stopped and turned to face back to the east.
With the advantage of distance, he could see part of the canopy.
Twenty or thirty yards deep in the jungle from which the column had come, the canopy trembled as if frightened by a great wind. Or as if a giant were treading through it. The trees shook and jolted, and trunks snapped like twigs.
Even from over sixty yards away, the ground beneath Manuel’s feet shuddered from the pounding the earth was taking from the beast.
As Manuel waited, the shaking of the trees grew stronger, and the trembling in the canopy moved closer.
Then a tree on the edge of the path toppled and fell into the clearing.
The sounds and movement all stopped at once as the creature stepped into the clearing.
It landed on its right foot and wavered, then brought its left foot forward and raised its snout as if testing the air. It hissed loudly, then turned its massive head to the north, as if focusing for a moment on the stone temple. Then with its gaze, it slowly swept across the clearing back to the south.
Manuel gaped at the thing for a moment, all but spellbound. Then he waved his machete and his free hand high overhead and emitted a yell.
As the creature turned its head to locate the source of the sound, Manuel turned toward the jungle. He raised his machete with both hands, grunted as he slashed a new gateway and stepped through it.
The creature swept its gaze back to the north, then slowly back to the south again, searching for the quarry he’d followed so far. There must be a new entrance point into the jungle and instinct told him it should be ahead. Frightened things usually run in one direction until they are trapped.
A breeze whipped across the clearing, bringing him new scents. They were lighter than the one he’d followed before but stronger and different from the dust and pollen from the grass.
He leaned forward and set out toward where he’d last seen the small creature before it ducked into the brush. He wasn’t able to discern the path Manuel had slashed with his machete, but even a powerful creature will follow the path of least resistance. And the aroma of food.
In several quick steps the scent grew stronger and thicker.
The grass in one place looked different. Wafting somehow, as if a solid liquid.
Manuel’s shirt had snagged atop a large plot of grass. It moved in the breeze.
The creature stopped and leaned down. The scent was strong on this strange grass. It was more like the scent he was following earlier, but not as strong.
He lunged and bit at the cloth, then slung his head side to side to dislodge it.
As the shirt wafted away in the wind, he straightened and look again to the north, then across the clearing to the west, then along the clearing to the south. The smaller creature was not in sight. Probably it escaped into a burrow.
He turned back the way he had come and backtracked, searching the air for scents.
Finally he found it again. The same scent as before. Multiple sources of food.
He stomped into the jungle along the same path Gabriel had taken.
Manuel heard the sounds of something crashing through the jungle, but faintly. Certain the creature was behind him, he slashed furiously at the low limbs, vines and brush that barred his path.
Always he kept in mind to angle back to the east. As he approached the column, he should be able to hear something. Either the sound of the followers slipping through the brush or the sound of Gabriel’s machete forging the way.
But the sound behind him wasn’t behind him. Or it was, but off to the east.
If the creature had found Gabriel’s entrance to the jungle, Manuel might not have as long to reach the column safely as he’d thought. If it were possible, he picked up his pace.
He slashed at the brush more quickly, not clearing quite as much, and forced his way through what remained with brute strength. In the same time he’d made eight steps before, he was making ten steps now. And each step was a bit longer.
It reminded him of a lesson his father had taught him.
One of the times when he’d muttered, “I can’t,” his father had him stand next to a wall and stretch his arms absolutely as high as he could reach.
When he did, his father stepped forward and made a mark next to the tip of his finger. Then he stepped back. “All right,” he said, “now reach just a little farther.”
Manuel stretched his arms again, reaching as high as he could.
Again his father stepped forward and made a mark. Manuel felt the tip of the pencil against the end of his finger.
“Now look,” his father said.
The second mark was almost a full half-inch higher than the first.
“Never believe you can’t do something. Instead, just do it.”
He grinned, leaned forward, and sped up again. The blade of his machete flashed repeatedly before him, almost too fast to see. Of course, there were no marks to measure his progress, but he was certain he’d doubled his speed over what he’d done earlier.
As they exited the jungle into yet another small clearing, but one larger than the second at something over a hundred yards across, Juan tapped Gabriel on the shoulder.
But Gabriel was already looking. “I see it,” he said.
In the distance and slightly to the right there were the remnants of another stone temple. This one was more dilapidated than the previous one, but the parts that remained standing were also much higher. It was perfect.
Predominantly, it was two stone columns, each easily ten feet across.
The one on the left rose to a height of maybe thirty feet. Through breaks in the tall grass, Gabriel could see other wide stones strewn about the base of it.
But the column on the right was perfect. It was a duplicate of the first, probably the other side of a gateway. But the top of it was easily forty to forty-five feet above the ground. And leading away to the south behind that column was a sloping abutment. It rose to within four or five feet of the top of the second column and met the ground some thirty feet beyond it.
A lone tree grew next to that column, its trunk stretching sixty or eighty feet into the air.
Gabriel pointed. “Quickly, Juan, get the others on top of the second column, the one on the right. They can climb the slope.”
As Gabriel set out across the clearing, Juan stepped aside. He caught the arm of the first woman behind him and pointed frantically toward the sloping wall at the base of the north column. “Up there. Go to the top of the column. And hurry.”
Across the clearing, Gabriel began scaling the tree.
Juan waited as the others exited the jungle. He kept his left arm raised, his index finger extended, and instructed them to follow the others. “Up there. Up there.”
When El Abuelo and his minders came through, he followed them to the base of the sloping wall and watched as they began the climb.
He was just about to step on the base of the wall when Manuel broke through the jungle at the same exit point. He raised both arms and waved. “Manuel! Ove here!”
Manuel raced toward him as he started up the incline.
By the time Manuel reached the base of the sloping wall, Juan was halfway to the top. He paused for a moment to safeguard his balance, then looked at the tree.
There was no sign of Gabriel.
Manuel was halfway to Juan when he yelled, “Where is Gabriel?”
Still moving up, Juan stuck his left arm out and pointed toward the tree. “Over there.”
Manuel looked at the tree but he saw nothing. He wanted to ask Juan whether he was sure, but either way there was little he could do about it now.
On top of the column, the fifteen people were huddled together. A few were pointing north, and all of them were looking in that direction.
The canopy had developed a sudden massive ripple, and it was moving toward them. As it drew closer, it was accompanied by the sound of splintering branches and toppled trees crashing to the jungle floor.
When the creature stepped into the clearing, Juan had just reached the top of the slope. Two men on the top were leaning down, their arms outstretched to help him up.
Manuel was a little over halfway up the slope. He stopped and looked across the clearing at the beast. The trunk of the massive tree was on the left edge of his vision. Suddenly he realized what Gabriel had in mind.
At first the thing only stopped and wavered, as it had done before, then began sweeping the clearing with its gaze.
Manuel still hadn’t moved. He jumped up and down and yelled, waving his arms overhead to get the creature’s attention.
The beast continued to scan the clearing for another moment. Then its head jerked when the sound of Manuel’s taunts and the scent it had been following reached it on a light breeze.
It took in Manuel, then turned its head slightly and seemed to look directly at the gathering of people on top of the second column.
It rolled its head and issued a menacing hiss, then leaned forward slightly and started across the clearing. Unlike before, it moved without hurry, seeming to know its quarry was trapped.
Manuel hurried toward the top of the slope.
Each massive footfall caused the column to tremble. When it was a little over halfway across the clearing, it hissed again. With the next step, a couple of large stones let go from the barren left column and dropped to the ground, raising a huge cloud of dust and grass pollen.
The cloud wafted over the second column, coating everyone there with a fine layer of dust.
As two men pulled Manuel to the top of the column, one of them said, “Where’s your shirt, my friend?”
Manuel grinned and gestured toward the creature. “Monster ate it.” Then he moved to the north edge of the column, raised his hands above his head again and yelled epithets at the creature.
He glanced back at the others. “Make noise,” he said. “Yell! Tempt it closer!”
Most of them began to yell insults, and the creature continued toward them.
But it veered to the east, toward the crumbling first column.
On the other side of the second column was a ramp of sorts. But on this side, the east side, any who fell would drop straight down at its feet.
“No,” Manuel muttered. “We must tempt it closer.”
He looked at Juan and another man. “Take off your shirts and come with me. Bring the shirts with you.” For his plan to work, they would have to present a large target, and one that was more easily attainable. And for Gabriel’s plan to succeed, his would have to succeed first.
The two men followed him to the west side of the column and, one by one, they dropped off the side onto the ramp. About a third of the way down the ramp, they were directly beneath the tree, but still a little higher than the creature’s head.
Manuel said, “Now, make noise. Wave your shirts. Make yourselves apparent, but stay close together. We need to look like a good meal, but one that isn’t so difficult to catch.”
The men began to yell and waved their shirt over their head.
Another man joined them. He handed Manuel a shirt from one of the other men, then took his off and began waving it over his head as well.
Soon the creature took notice.
It looked from the higher column to the men on the slope, then back. Finally it stepped around the north side of the column. There it stopped and peered up, as if gauging the distance to the unobtainable top. Then it moved toward Manuel and the others on the slope.
“Hold your ground,” Manuel said. “We must remain just here.”
The men continued to wave their arms and make noise, and the creature moved closer.
It watched them for a moment, its mouth slightly open as if smiling.
Suddenly it lunged forward with its head, its massive jaws snapping on air just short of the top of the sloping wall.
It turned and moved a step farther along the wall, where the wall was shorter.
Manuel and the others remained where they were. If anything they jeered even louder and waved their shirts frantically.
The creature lunged again, and again its jaws snapped on air. This time one tooth snagged a stone and turned it at an angle on top of the wall.
Manual heard a slight rustling from the canopy of the tree above him.
The men continued to jeer and yell at the beast.
Manuel, followed by Juan, even danced a little lower on the wall, still yelling and waving their shirts.
The massive head withdrew a few feet, then seemed to tremble as it gathered itself for the next lunge.
And suddenly Gabriel was astride its neck, his legs locked just behind its head.
He raised his machete with both arms and arched his back.
The creature seemed to notice something was different. It raised its head slightly as if to look above it just as Gabriel slashed forward with the machete.
The jolt through his arms and shoulders were as solid as if he were hacking at a pliable rock.
Without looking to see whether he’d caused any damage, he raised the machete again, slashed forward again, then raised it a third time and slashed forward again.
Finally the creature’s brain registered some pain, and the mighty head shook hard to the left. The tiny, malformed arms reached up but were unable to grasp anything.
Gabriel hung on tightly with his legs and slashed forward again.
The monster’s head shook back to the right, almost pinning Gabriel’s right leg between the thick neck and the tree.
He slashed forward again, and a small fountain of thick blood shot into the air. It splattered against his face and shirt.
He twisted the machete in his hands, aiming it straight down.
The creature swung its head to the left again, then back to the right in a great, rolling loop.
At the pinnacle of that swing, just as the beast was about to swing its head back to the left, Gabriel plunged the machete straight down, praying he’d hit his mark.
The blade of the machete, having hacked through the thick, knobby skin in preparation, sank straight through the creature’s brain and out through his lower jaw.
The beast straightened suddenly, took a faltering step toward the wall, then toppled over to the left.
Just before it hit, Gabriel kicked free and rolled away.
The handle of the machete still protruded from the head of the beast.
Gabriel, on his back, his chest heaving, remained where he was for a long moment. He looked up into a rare, clear blue sky. The rains would come again soon enough. But for now, fortune was smiling on them.
* * * * * * *