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Jim Ellison was concentrating so intently on the report he had taken home to study that he failed to hear the footsteps approaching the door of apartment 307; the knock on the door took him completely by surprise.
He jumped, shook his head sharply to ground himself, put down the papers and moved to the door.
He looked in some bewilderment at the elderly man who stood there; a man who looked vaguely familiar. It took him a moment to realise that this person reminded him, ever so slightly, of his partner; after another moment he realised that there was no facial resemblance, it was rather one of attitude; the stranger had Blair's alert gaze and open, friendly grin.
"Detective Ellison? Is Blair at home?"
Jim studied the stranger before replying. Since the debacle over Sandburg's original dissertation, they had both been extremely careful who they spoke to, but Jim could detect nothing underhand about this man; nothing that muttered, even faintly, 'reporter' or 'freelance writer looking for a story'. "He's not home yet, I'm afraid."
"May I come in and wait for him? It's fairly important I see him as soon as possible - and I'd like a word with you as well, Detective."
"Me?" The comment worried Jim ever so slightly. The man seemed innocent enough - but was the publicity surrounding Blair's sentinel dissertation about to surface again? Not if Jim Ellison could help it!
The grin widened slightly, almost as if the stranger could read what was going through Ellison's mind. "I'm no threat to either of you, Detective. My name is Stoddard."
He had heard the name... "As in anthropologist?"
Jim stood aside. "Come in."
As Jim closed the door, Stoddard glanced round in obvious appreciation. "I see Blair's influence here. Has he converted you yet?"
"Persuaded you to take an interest in anthropology instead of just tolerating it."
"Oh. Not really, though obviously some of what he says sticks."
Stoddard chuckled. "Yes, that's Blair."
"And I've read some of his books - in self-defence." He gestured Stoddard to a seat. "What do you want with Blair, Mr Stoddard?" he asked as he sat.
"I want him to join me on an expedition." He paused as Jim stared at him. "Blair is brilliant in the field, Mr Ellison. I was really sorry he turned down the Borneo expedition - and, at the time, surprised too, I have to admit; I accepted his reason - an ongoing study he didn't feel he could abandon - as valid, although he usually dropped whatever he happened to be doing to go on a research trip; he's always loved working in the field. Actual teaching... since he decided to make a career of anthropology, he's been like me, regarding that as the price he would have to pay to get some funding. I've always seen so much of myself in him...
"Of course, later I understood completely - Sentinel Ellison."
"You obviously missed the press conference where he admitted that everything he had written about present-day sentinels was fiction," Jim said stiffly, beginning to rise, his intention obvious.
"Relax, man!" Stoddard said. "I'm not about to out you.
"I missed his actual press conference, but I heard all about it. In detail. It created quite a stir in the circles where his name's known. Oh, I grant you one or two people muttered about the young whizz kid trying to make a name for himself by making up his facts - people whose theories he had disproved, who hoped that those theories would gain credence again; but most of us knew damn' fine he was lying at that press conference. A cheat would have taken the money and published, not claimed fraud and fiction before he got it. Then when he sued Graham for publicising a work he had told the man was not for publication - well, as far as I was concerned, that rather confirmed things."
"Rainier didn't think so."
"Chancellor Edwards always was a fool. Never could see further than the end of her nose - on a clear day, and provided she wore double strength glasses. Nothing impresses her like money. Academic brilliance? Forget it. Actually, I've always suspected she resented the students who had more brains than she did - and that's probably about 95% of them," Stoddard added thoughtfully. "She was a pretty mediocre student herself - good at parroting facts, but she never had the spark that makes a good researcher. It was inevitable that she'd go for administration. And she's a staunch supporter of the double standard.
"I heard about the Ventriss case. Didn't surprise me she wouldn't support Blair. Not when the alternative was keeping some hard cash for the University.
"Anyway, I was really pleased when I heard Blair got a second chance at his PhD. How did that happen?"
Ellison grinned, though he was still slightly suspicious of Stoddard's motives. "Well, first there was suing Sid Graham. Graham couldn't deny that Naomi - do you know Naomi?"
"Blair's mother. I met her once. Nice woman, but an airhead. How she ever managed to produce a son with Blair's brilliance I'll never know."
"No, I wouldn't call her an 'airhead'," Ellison said slowly. "She's intelligent enough; she just doesn't think before she acts. It obviously never occurred to her that when Blair said his paper still 'needed work', he meant something other than the cosmetic presentation of the thing. Anyway, Graham couldn't deny that it was Naomi who sent him the manuscript, without Blair's knowledge, not even as a submission but more to get the thing checked over for grammar, clumsy wording, etc, because Blair had told her it was a first draft that still needed to be tidied up. Nor could he deny that when he contacted Blair, Blair told him straight up that it wasn't for publication. Graham was used to writers trying to wring larger advances out of his firm; he assumed this was Blair's way of saying 'Not enough money, man', so instead of accepting that Blair's 'No' meant no, he offered more and more money, publicising the thing to give Blair a taste of popularity - "
"As if Blair needed that!" Stoddard exclaimed. "He's one of the most popular men I know - he can adjust to any environment as if he was born there."
Ellison nodded his agreement. "Anyway, we pointed out that a) Blair himself hadn't in fact submitted the thing anywhere - either to Rainier as his PhD dissertation or to Sid's firm for publication and b) - what you said. A real cheat would have taken the money and run - the case was in part to retrieve his reputation. He said at his press conference that it was a good piece of fiction. He had not tried to get it published as fact. His dissertation on the police as a closed society was well under way; did the court want to see the work he had done on that? And the court decision was in his favour.
"We took that little detail to Chancellor Edwards. She agreed that if he could present this closed society dissertation, he would be reinstated. He did - he had been working on it pretty well full time since we decided to sue Graham and it was nearly ready by the time the case was heard - and he was."
"Of course, the settlement gave Blair quite a bit of money. Like I said, that would impress Nancy Edwards." Then, more seriously, "I imagine it hurt him quite a bit, though - denying your abilities like that."
Ellison opened his mouth to reply and Stoddard held up his hand. "Don't try to minimise what you can do, Mr Ellison.
"I know Blair very well. I know how obsessed he was with sentinels. I realised, in hindsight, it had to have been something that important to make him turn down Borneo.
"When I heard what was the subject of his 'false' dissertation, I knew what I had only suspected had to be the case; he had indeed found a sentinel. You, Detective Ellison. He lied, threw away his academic credibility, to protect you.
"It was you who, afterwards, 'convinced' Chancellor Edwards to give Blair another chance, wasn't it." It wasn't a question.
"Well... yes. Blair didn't deserve..." Jim trailed off into an uncomfortable silence.
"I know a little about the subject, though obviously not as much as Blair; I haven't studied it the way he has. But I know enough to know that you were protecting your guide."
Jim's jaw dropped.
"Blair is very empathic," Stoddard continued as if he hadn't noticed. "It's what makes him so good at working with edgy, nervous natives from small tribes who have never previously seen a white man.
"That's why I need him to come on the trip I'm currently planning. And - to be honest, I could use you, too."
"Me?" Ellison was honestly stunned. "I'm just a cop. How could you justify including a cop who knows next to nothing in your field... "
"Officially, in a dual role as a guard and also as our interpreter. This is a trip into totally unexplored territory, Mr Ellison. Your experiences as an army ranger and with the Chopec would be of considerable value - and you speak Quechua fluently."
"Fairly fluently," Jim said. "It's been a few years, and I've forgotten quite a bit."
"But once exposed to it again, I'm sure it'll come back to you."
"Well... I suppose - " He broke off abruptly as the door opened; he had been so distracted by Stoddard he hadn't even been aware of Blair's arrival. Twice in an hour, he thought. Not good!
"Hi, Ji - Eli!"
"Hello, Blair. I'm sorry I didn't contact you earlier, but you know what it's like when you have a deadline to meet and a new expedition in the pipeline - I've been chasing my tail for the last six or seven months - and I wasn't sure that you'd want me to contact you in any case."
"Oh. You heard about...?"
"Yes. It was quite a topic of conversation for a while - a seven day wonder, of course. But it might surprise you to know just how many of us wondered why you lied about falsifying your data; knowing your obsession with sentinels, though, we guessed it was because you had too much integrity to betray your subject's privacy."
"Where it matters, among the people for whom it matters, your reputation is totally intact. It was never damaged in any way. If anything, it's been enhanced."
"Oh. Eli, that's - "
"Blair, he knows," Jim said quietly. "I haven't denied it. He began to put it all together when you turned down the trip to Borneo."
Ellison grinned at Stoddard. "You should come by more often. I don't think I've ever seen Blair so silenced in all the time I've known him."
"Eli, you have to promise me you won't talk about Jim to anyone."
"Blair, I understand. What you did to protect Detective Ellison... I don't think I would have had the courage to do that, throw away everything I'd worked for for so many years. In the face of your sacrifice, I certainly wouldn't do anything to endanger him."
"Thanks, man." Blair drew a long, relieved breath. "So - you're off on another expedition? Where to this time? When do you leave?"
"We leave early next month. Where? The upper Amazon; a virtually unexplored part of the Montana region of Peru."
Blair glanced at Jim.
Stoddard nodded. "Yes, Blair; it's reasonably close to the region Mr Ellison knows. We're hoping to pick up a Chopec as guide."
"And that's why he wants me to go along," Jim said. "Because I know the Chopec, know the area."
Stoddard was prevented from answering by Blair's exclaimed, "You want Jim to go with you?"
"Actually, I want both of you. I need your people skills, Blair, and Mr Ellison's sentinel abilities - I really need them.
"The tribe I plan to study is one of the very tiny groups that we still find occasionally in some of the most remote areas. They're almost certainly related to the Chopec, but for whatever reason they're no longer in frequent, direct contact with the larger tribe. There are at most fifty of them, probably less, all related in some degree, and inbreeding is undoubtedly taking its toll. The thing is, as far as we know they have had no contact whatsoever with civilisation; we'll probably be the first white men they've ever seen."
"They won't know what to make of your party," Blair said slowly.
"Agreed. But if we can go in with at least one of our party speaking a language they can understand, and if he is also a sentinel... It would let them see that we are very little different from them."
"But that would be a false impression, Professor," Ellison objected.
"A false first impression, certainly. Blair can tell you, as long we don't actually lie to them, just allow them to form their own conclusions from what they see, it's possible to correct that false impression later, once they get to know us."
Blair nodded. "He's right, Jim. In terms of, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realise you'd misunderstood me'. After all, the only difference really is the level of technology - and the Cree fishing spear is just as effective and a little bit more satisfying than a rod. The trout don't have time to laugh." He grinned at Stoddard. "An old joke, Eli."
"Professor, if they're so remote they've never seen a white man... how do you know about them?"
"While you were with the Chopec, did you ever hear them talking about the Charapek?"
Ellison thought about it for a moment. "Not that I remember," he said, "but I've forgotten a lot about that period. It's possible they did but I didn't register it as important."
"After I finished the first draft of my book about the Borneo trip, I had a couple of weeks free; I heard about the visit some Chopec tribesmen made to Cascade, and went to speak with them, to see how badly they had been affected by what had happened - between Cyclops' illegal operations and what they had seen in Cascade. They were surprisingly resilient."
"You spoke to the ones who were here?" Ellison asked.
"Yes. It was quite interesting; they said that they'd had help from someone called Enqueri who had once lived with them, but who now lived in the Great City."
"I'm Enqueri," Ellison said quietly.
"I guessed that, eventually. After I got back to New York, I did more checking up and got some details about your involvement, and Blair's, in what happened in Cascade. The Chopec really didn't say that much to me about Enqueri. Tribes tend to be fairly secretive about their sentinels; Blair got more information about them than I ever could, but even he didn't learn that much."
Blair nodded. "Either Burton managed to get a lot more out of them than we did, or he extrapolated a lot from what he saw."
Ellison scowled. "He made it up."
"No, Jim, 'extrapolated' does not mean 'made it up'. It means he may have seen two or three apparently unrelated facts and realised that when they were linked, you had one big combined fact."
"Which could have been wrong, Darwin. You could have got all that Sentinel 'knowledge' from a work of fiction." Even as he said it he flinched slightly, realising how unthinkingly he had spoken.
"Jim. Did it work?"
"I rest my case."
"Except that it could have worked because you discovered what to do all on your own," Jim said, desperate to make amends for the thoughtless comment that must have hurt Blair, even though the younger man had let it pass without as much as blinking.
"Jim - we both know I'm brilliant, but I'm not that brilliant!"
Stoddard chuckled, drawing their attention back to him. "Maybe he got more facts because he was an early explorer; he saw the tribes before they had time to feel threatened by the white man. Anyway, one of the Chopec mentioned the Charapek, 'who live deeper in the rain forest'; they saw them occasionally, but the Charapek territory was too far afield for the Chopec to think of hunting there, even if it hadn't been unethical to hunt in another tribe's lands when their own supported them perfectly well."
"So when you got home again, you started getting another expedition together," Blair commented.
"Yes, but I was also second drafting my book about Borneo and writing about the Chopec reaction to Cyclops and Cascade for one of the magazines. I'd had you in mind for one of my party to Peru anyway, but then the whole sentinel thing blew sky high. I couldn't take time to come to Cascade at that point - by then I was proofing and indexing the book - "
"And at that point, since I was persona non grata to the powers that be, it wouldn't have been wise anyway, if you wanted the grant to let you go on the expedition."
Stoddard looked thoughtful. "I hadn't thought of that... but you don't usually have to list the actual members of an expedition when you're trying for a grant, just indicate how many will be on it."
"How many will be on this one, Eli? And who else have you thought of for it?" There was a trace of worry in Blair's tone.
"I'd thought not more than six in total, one of them to be a Chopec if we can get one to agree to accompany us." Stoddard looked at Jim.
"I don't know how much influence I'd have with the Chopec any more. I was their sentinel. I left. Now, I'm 'the sentinel of the great city'."
"You were their sentinel for eighteen months. I think you'll find you still have more influence than you think."
"Eli," Blair repeated. "Who else?"
"I'm thinking of Neall and Fiona O'Donnell."
As Blair nodded, Ellison asked, "You'd take a woman into totally unexplored territory?"
"Fiona's been on several expeditions, mostly with Eli," Blair said. "She's always pulled her weight. And she'd very good at getting the point of view of the tribal women. A man can seldom do that. Strange men are rarely allowed that close to the women."
"And because she's married and accompanying her husband, most of the tribes are willing to accept her presence," Stoddard added. "An unmarried woman can sometimes be a problem - no matter how competent she is. Sometimes she can cause trouble between the men in the group, too."
"I've never been really happy taking a woman on an expedition at all, though if you have to have one, Fiona's the best," Blair muttered.
Jim glanced at his friend, eyebrows raised in some surprise. "Wouldn't have pegged you for sexist, Chief," he said, unblushingly forgetting that he had expressed almost exactly the same doubt just seconds earlier.
"Not sexist, Jim." Blair scowled. "There are good reasons. Remember the expedition Karl Jurgen took to New Guinea, Eli?"
As Stoddard shuddered, Blair turned back to Jim. "Jurgen made every mistake in the book, and as far as anyone could discover even managed to invent one or two new ones. His group was too big, and none of them had any experience; even Jurgen himself had only ever been on one expedition, when he was still a student. God knows how he ever got approval for his trip in the first place. He was the only male in the party, all the rest were women - you never saw the man but he was surrounded by an admiring bevy of female students, though his male students didn't think much of him, and the feeling was reciprocated. He seemed to hate his own sex. His male students, even the best ones, rarely got more than a bare pass mark. Luckily for us, this little quirk was known by his superiors - well, it had to be obvious; if all the men in every class he taught who had previously been getting As and Bs suddenly dropped to D and E as soon as they went into his class, and all the women who had previously had C or D soared to A, it had to be lecturer bias. Most of us well were enough known from other classes that... well, it was allowed for.
"His group was made up of his more obvious admirers; half of them hadn't done much more than Anthro 101, and none of them, including Jurgen, had any idea of the language.
"Several senior members of his department tried hinting gently that the composition of his party was wrong, and when that didn't work, someone flatly told him that he was making a major mistake. He refused to listen. In desperation, his sponsors withdrew his funding. He decided that someone was jealous, that there was a conspiracy against him, and since he was independently wealthy he declared that he would fund his expedition himself." He fell silent.
"And?" Jim asked when the silence continued.
"They were supposed to be checking the continuing effects of 'civilisation' on a known hunter-gatherer tribe that had last been studied about fifteen years previously, and that had been exposed to Christianity; but the tribe they found wasn't the one they were looking for - it was one that had never encountered 'civilisation'. The girls ended up forcibly married to men in the tribe, while Jurgen's head ended up attached to someone's belt."
"It was a total disaster," Stoddard said. "A party of half a dozen men would have been taken seriously by the tribe; even half a dozen men and their wives. One man with a harem of admiring females - exotic ones - well, the temptation must have been irresistible."
Jim looked from one to the other. "How did you find out?"
"A couple of the girls decided that no way were they putting up with this, and after a few months they saw an opportunity and made a run for it. They somehow managed to dodge any pursuit; and since they knew enough by then to be able to survive in the jungle, they eventually got back to civilisation, a little more than a year after they disappeared," Stoddard said quietly. "The others - if they're still alive - are still there because nobody knows how to find them.
"It was close on ten years ago, but it's still brought up as an awful warning any time someone looks as if he's being sloppy over the preparation for an expedition," Stoddard added. "And what Blair said - a lot of expedition leaders prefer not to take a woman along because of that, unless she's obviously of mature years. Depending on where they're going, of course. However, I like to include Neall and Fiona in my expeditions if they're available. And you have to admit, Blair, Fiona is perfectly capable of looking after herself."
Blair chuckled, "Well, yes - if she'd been in Jurgen's party, whoever got her would have ended up taking her back to civilisation to get rid of her." He glanced at Jim. "She's a black belt in several martial arts disciplines. Anyone who tries messing with her gets a lot more than he expected."
"It's amazing how much respect Neall gets, sometimes, from some of the tribes," Stoddard went on. "Occasionally one of the men in the tribe tries his luck with Fiona and regrets it; Neall's considered extra strong because they think he has mastered a woman as strong as that."
As Jim nodded acceptance of the explanation, Stoddard added, "So will you consider joining me? Both of you?"
Blair was still watching Jim. "We'll talk it over, Eli, and let you know inside twenty four hours. Remember though, Jim might not be able to get the time off."
"And it's both of you or neither?"
Blair nodded. "I'm his guide, Eli; I can't leave him for months at a time. A day or two, a week, even two weeks, yes; longer than that, we both get pretty twitchy."
"You certainly seem... well, quieter than you used to be."
"I guess it's because I was looking for Jim, even without realising it. I thought it was just an obsession with tribal lore, a fascination with sentinels and what they could do; now I know I was fascinated because I'm a guide. My studies were leading me to a sentinel, to know what to do to guide a sentinel. I don't know if my sentinel had to be Jim, if his guide had to be me, though I think it's possible; I do know that once we made contact, the connection went deep very fast and I stopped running quite so much on nervous energy. I can relax these days; I never could before without making a positive effort."
"Me, too. I'm far easier to be around now than I was, pre-Sandburg. I'm better-tempered - "
"There are times you could fool me, tough guy!" Blair muttered.
"Chief, believe me, you don't want to know what I was like in my days with Vice."
"I've heard a few stories. I thought they'd grown a bit in the telling."
"Probably not." He looked at Stoddard. "I don't deny I'm tempted," he said. "Very tempted. Blair has given up so much for me, I'd like to give him the chance to be entirely in his own environment for a while - from comments he's made - and you just provided confirmation - I know how much he enjoyed what he called 'field trips'. As Blair said, though, I may not be able get time off."
"Just a couple more details, Eli. How long are you planning for?" Blair added.
"Probably around nine to ten months maximum," Stoddard replied, "though it could be as little as six. Certainly not less than six."
"What's our line of communication?"
"None, really, while we're with the Charapek. To get in, light aircraft to Pucallpa, then helicopter from there to Chopec territory. There we buy or hire canoes to take us into Charapek land. When we're ready to leave we return to Chopec land and radio for a helicopter to pick us up. It keeps the outside world contact with the Charapek to a minimum."
"You're planning on five of us and one Chopec... how do we get our supplies in? By water?"
"We'll take everything we need in with us. The Charapek are upstream from the Chopec on a small tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Yucayali River, which is itself a tributary of the Amazon - we can get three canoes up there easily enough. I'm also hoping that we can, at least in part, live off the land."
Blair nodded again, then noticed that Stoddard had lost one of his audience. "Jim? Come back, Jim."
Jim visibly pulled himself back to the loft. "Sorry - just trying to visualise the geography of the area. I think I know the river system you mean. You were saying... live off the land? Should be easy enough. Plenty of fish in the river, a reasonable amount of small game if you don't mind eating rodent or monkey or snake. I'm not sure about plant food, though. That was the women's area of expertise."
"Which Fiona should be able to tap, to add to the knowledge she already has," Stoddard said. He glanced at his watch, and stood. "I've got a meeting at Rainier in half an hour. Nice meeting you, Detective." He looked directly at Blair. "You will give serious consideration to coming with me, Blair?"
"I'd say we're definitely interested, Eli. I'd love to go with you. But if Jim can't go, I can't."
Both men were silent for some moments after the door closed behind Stoddard. At last Jim said, quietly and positively, "You really want to go on this trip, don't you."
"Yes, but I won't desert you."
"You won't have any difficulty getting time off from Rainier?"
"These expeditions are part and parcel of university life, Jim. A member of staff, even a TA, who is getting a lot of stuff published is a feather in the cap of the university where he's based. That automatically means getting time off for necessary research."
"You didn't get time off while you were working for your dissertation," Jim objected.
"Well, the U was more understanding than it might have been," Blair told him. "Thing is, I was living and studying in Cascade, so I still had responsibilities there that I wouldn't have had if we'd been living and working in - say - Tacoma or Seattle."
"I see. So it totally depends on me getting time off."
Blair nodded. "You should have leave time accumulated," he said. "You've hardly taken any time off in all in the years I've known you."
"Unfortunately there's a limit to how many days we're allowed to carry from one year to the next. Strictly speaking, I've forfeited most of the time I haven't taken."
"That sucks, man. Suppose you'd been trying to save time to have a really good, long holiday abroad?"
"Tough. You can't do it."
"So you don't think you'll be able to get the time?"
"If Simon won't give it to me as time due, I'll take it unpaid. You want to go on this expedition, Chief; and I have to admit I'm quite keen on the idea myself. You know my world; I know very little about yours. I want to see something more. The Chopec aren't seriously affected by the white man's culture - they know quite a lot, though they only use a little of it as they see it useful, but they are affected. I think I'd like to see a culture that hasn't been affected by white men at all."
"I've only seen one culture like that up till now, and that was around eight years ago in a different part of the Amazon basin. Like Eli said about this one, it was a tiny tribe of just forty-three people. It's fascinating, Jim, seeing how they live, knowing that everyone on earth lived something like that thousands of years ago. But it's heartbreaking too when you realise how much basic survival knowledge has been lost to what we call civilisation. If the civilised world were to collapse overnight, it's the handful of stone age culture tribes throughout the world that would keep the human race alive."
"You don't think anyone in the civilised countries would survive a collapse?"
"A few probably would, if they lived in pretty remote areas. There would be too much fighting in the highly populated regions - dog eat dog as everyone tried to acquire what food there was and then starved as the supplies ran out. Not many natives of First World countries could live off the land, even in farming areas - too much specialisation on the farms, and the farmers haven't much idea how to process what they grow - they sell the crops to the food manufacturers, who are in the cities."
"You could survive," Jim murmured.
"Probably. And so could you."
They grinned at each other.
"I'll have a word with Simon first thing tomorrow," Jim said.
"Let me get this straight," Simon Banks said, looking from Blair to Jim. "Sandburg's been offered a position on an expedition into Peru, and you've been invited along too, Jim. And this little jaunt could take nearly a year."
"Six to ten months," Blair murmured.
"It could take nearly a year," Simon repeated. "I can understand Sandburg wanting to go, but you, Jim? What would you find to do? Do you really think an expedition like this one needs a sentinel?"
"Probably not, Simon, though Stoddard thought having a sentinel along would be useful - but Blair won't desert me. And it's more than time that I thought about his needs instead of just assuming he's going to cater to mine all the time. If we were allowed to carry leave time from year to year, I'd have long enough for the trip due to me, between vacation entitlement and time in lieu when I've worked weekends. I'm perfectly willing to take the time as unpaid leave; but I'll resign if that's the only way I'll be free to go."
Simon looked from Jim back to Blair.
Blair shrugged. "I won't pretend that I'm happy with the idea that Jim might have to resign, but he knows how much this opportunity means to me, to my academic career. Someone of Professor Stoddard's reputation choosing to include me in his team on an expedition of such delicacy, after the furore there was about my original dissertation - even though I did get my PhD with the closed societies one... Eli said most of the people who knew me knew I was lying at the press conference, but there are a lot of people in my field who don't know me, who must harbour suspicions about my credibility. An expedition under Eli Stoddard's leadership, a paper published jointly with him or with an introduction by him, would go a long way towards getting my professional reputation fully restored."
Jim nodded. "In honesty, Simon, in part my going along is the action of a sentinel acting to protect his guide - in this case, his guide's reputation. But I also find I'm looking forward to participating in this trip. It'll be an interesting change from my days with the Chopec."
"I thought you couldn't remember much about that?" Simon asked.
"Bits have come back over the years," Jim admitted. "I still don't remember all that much; I guess I never will. Seriously, though, how much do you remember about what you did as recently as last week?"
Simon looked thoughtful. "You only remember the highlights?"
"Well, I'll be sorry to lose you for a year, but I can't deny you've rarely taken time off while you've been working in this department. I'll see what I can swing for you, but outside of this year's entitlement, it will probably have to be unpaid."
Jim grinned. "Like I said, that doesn't bother me. It's not as if there'll be anywhere to spend money in the Peruvian rain forest."
They went back to Jim's desk and settled down to get on with some of the paperwork that seemed to breed every time Jim turned his back, even for a few hours. If they were to be leaving Cascade for several months, Jim wanted to get as much of his work finalised as possible.
They joined Stoddard and the other two members of the team in an airport hotel in Los Angeles, meeting up in Stoddard's room. The O'Donnells greeted Blair enthusiastically, showing him quite clearly that they, like Stoddard, had no doubts about his credibility; Jim stood back watching, pleased at their response to his partner, and slightly amused by their appearance. If he had thought he and Blair were mismatched for size, this pair was even more mismatmched; the man was at least as tall as Simon, and muscular - like Jim himself, he clearly kept himself fit; and the woman was barely five feet, whippet-thin, almost flat-chested and with hair cropped short - it would have been easy at first glance to mistake her for a boy who had not yet reached his full growth. Then she laughed at something Blair said, and the illusion was gone.
Stoddard joined him and said softly, "Happier?"
He grinned and nodded. "I have to admit I was a little worried about how they'd react to Blair - but I suppose you wouldn't have included anyone who did doubt him, would you?"
"I'm not sure I would trust the integrity of anyone who knew him who did doubt Blair," Stoddard said frankly.
Jim was silent for a moment. "I don't think I realised till now just how much faith you have in him," he murmured.
Blair was beckoning him over. "Jim, this is Fiona O'Donnell - don't try anything on with her, she'll tie you up in a knot and then toss you to Neall here, and he'll kick you from LA to Peru without you having to pay for your flight. Guys, this is my friend Jim Ellison - he's coming with us as interpreter."
"Hello, Fiona... Neall."
"Nice to meet you, Jim. So how did you meet Blair?"
It was clearly the polite question of someone determined to like the friend of a friend. Jim took a deep breath. "He was studying me. I'm the sentinel he lied to protect."
There was a moment of dead silence. Then Neall said quietly, "Thank you." Jim looked at him, slightly puzzled. "For trusting us. We know Blair; we knew he'd lied about making up his facts, but we'd never have asked him about it."
Fiona nodded her agreement. "Eli knows, of course?"
"Yes," Jim said quietly. "Apparently he fitted all the clues together quite some time ago."
"Like Neall said, we appreciate your trust. We'd probably have added up the facts over the coming weeks, right enough - you can't live in as close quarters as we do on this sort of expedition and hope to keep many secrets; knowing right from the start does make things easier, though."
Stoddard allowed them a few more minutes for Jim and the O'Donnells to adjust to each other, then he said, "Right, then. Sit down, everyone. Now that Jim's come clean, I can tell you that he's not actually coming with us as solely as interpreter, he's coming as a sentinel. You've both worked with Blair before, you know how often he's asked different tribes about their sentinels and the kind of response he's had - can you understand how valuable it will be, our group actually having a sentinel? To say nothing of a shaman who is his guide?"
"A shaman?" Fiona looked curiously from Stoddard to Jim to Blair.
Blair nodded. "It's a fairly long story. A shaman who died passed the way of the shaman on to me - but of course I haven't had any proper training. You don't really find many traditional shamans kicking around in American cities."
Neall grinned. "You've always been a quick thinker, Blair - I'm sure nobody will suspect anything."
"And if they do, it can always be passed off as different customs for different cultures," Fiona added. "After all, you've seen shamans at work."
"I know," Blair muttered. "I've also seen how many of them use hallucinogens in their everyday 'work'. I don't do drugs, Fiona. I won't do drugs."
"Blair, have you ever seen a shaman who's a guide to a sentinel using drugs?" Stoddard asked.
Blair gave a wry grin. "No," he admitted, "but how many tribes did we ever meet who admitted to having a sentinel? Some wouldn't admit to ever having had one; at most they'd say, 'We have heard of such men... ' All the ones who came clean, so to speak, said, 'We had one years ago... '"
"Fair comment," Stoddard agreed. "We can go with 'different customs', then, and all you'll have to worry about is keeping Jim centred." He glanced round his party. "We fly out tomorrow morning at 10.15... "
They were met at Lima by Captain Sandoval, who greeted Jim and Blair enthusiastically. "Gentlemen! You're both looking well. And how is my good friend Simon? And his so-energetic son?"
"They're both doing fine, and Simon asked us to give you his regards if we saw you," Jim replied mendaciously - they had not in fact thought there was any chance that they would see Sandoval. On the other hand, Simon would certainly have sent such a message if he had known they would see the Peruvian Captain.
Sandoval grinned at Blair. "You weren't put off my country by your experiences here?"
"It's a beautiful country, Captain," Blair said, "with a wonderful history. I'm looking forward to meeting some of the indigenous people of your rain forests."
"Well, I hope you don't need my help this time." He turned to Stoddard. "Professor Stoddard? Nice to meet you." He held out his hand.
Stoddard shook it. "Captain. I didn't expect you to meet us yourself."
Sandoval laughed. "As you saw, I already know Mr Ellison and Mr Sandburg. How could I not meet my friends?"
Stoddard lifted an eyebrow. "I see there's a story here."
"There is indeed. I would trust neither one of them alone to tell it fully, but each of them will undoubtedly be happy to explain at length and in detail what the other did. What I saw was Mr Sandburg jumping out of an aircraft to follow Mr Ellison when he knew nothing about parachuting, because their friends were somewhere on the ground and that was the only way to reach them."
"Yes," Stoddard said quietly. "It's what I would expect of Blair. There is nothing he won't do for a friend." He glanced at his blushing subordinate. "I definitely want to hear this story before we go home again." He turned his attention back to Sandoval. "And this is Neall O'Donnell and his wife Fiona. They haven't been to Peru before. However, they're both very experienced. I don't think you need worry about our party running into difficulties."
Sandoval smiled as he shook hand with them. "I hope you enjoy your time in my country, Senor, Senora." Then he turned his attention back to Stoddard. "The aircraft you have hired is ready." He glanced over their luggage. "You are not taking much for a six month stay," he commented, a trace of query in his voice.
"I've found it's best to live off the land if possible; work with the tribe we're visiting, hunt with them, help them gather food, buy things from them if they've had exposure to a monetary culture. Try to put something into their economy, leave them better off than we found them if at all possible.
"In the case of the tribe we're hoping to study, they've had no exposure to anything more advanced than the stone age, so basically all we can do is help them gather food, maybe give them some very basic medical help. What we won't be is a burden to them; we won't leave them worse off than they were before we arrived."
"You plan to hunt with them. Guns, of course?"
Stoddard grinned, fully understanding what was behind the not-too-subtle comment. "No, Captain. Jim and Neall are both experienced with a bow, and Blair can handle a fishing spear with the best."
"Ain't that the truth." Jim muttered. He grinned. "An old joke," he explained.
Stoddard grunted, remembering a reference to a Cree fishing spear and 'an old joke'. "Related to the trout laughing?"
Jim and Blair looked at each other; both chucked. "Yes," Blair said.
"We went fishing one weekend," Jim explained. "Blair took along a fishing spear, letting me think he wanted to try it, and I was convinced he wouldn't catch anything; I'd already told him, when we originally planned the trip, that I didn't like the sound of trout laughing. Well, I was the one they laughed at; Blair speared a dozen fish inside a couple of hours, then decided he'd caught enough. Sat and watched me catching nothing the rest of the day. Then he told me just how much spear fishing he'd done."
Stoddard chuckled. "How old were you when you speared your first fish, Blair? Seven, was it, or eight?"
"Eight," Blair grinned.
Sandoval nodded. "That you can use the tribe's own skills, that is good."
"And Jim speaks pretty fluent Quechua, so we've got the language too. We're quite looking forward to this trip."
"Ah well, I hope you do not meet any criminals this time," Sandoval said, looking at Jim and Blair, "and that you have a peaceful trip."
As the sound of the helicopter faded, half a dozen Chopec materialised out of the jungle. Jim strode forward, greeting them in Quechua, then added, "Qalluni, my friend!"
Ignoring the rest of the party - who if they were with Enqueri had to be friends who would do nothing to harm the tribe - the Chopec gathered around Jim, talking rapidly, welcoming him back. Finally he turned back to his friends and beckoned Stoddard and Blair forward.
"Ah - Sta'art!" Qalluni said. "You have come back. You are welcome."
Stoddard grinned and managed a greeting in stumbling Quechua.
"And this," Jim said proudly, "is my Guide La'ar. Incacha knew him, and named him shaman; and he has more than justified Incacha's faith in him."
Those greetings done, Jim called the other two forward and introduced them as well.
They gathered up the party's equipment, sharing it between them all, and made their way to the Chopec village.
It was amazing how quickly the Chopec prepared a feast to welcome their visitors - or, rather, it would have been amazing if it had been the first time any of them had encountered the hospitality of a hunter-gatherer tribe.
Nothing was said about the purpose of the visit that night. The conversation, rather, concentrated on telling Enqueri what had been happening in Chopec lands in recent months.
Cyclops Oil was no longer attempting to prospect in the area, and Jim nodded his satisfaction at the news. Spalding had had a serious fright anyway, and Jim had subsequently make it clear to him that the Cascade PD would be watching him very carefully. He doubted through that Spalding had the initiative to try anything on his own; he was as certain as he could be that the moving force behind Cyclops' attempts to obtain oil from Chopec territory had been Yaeger, and Yaeger was in prison and would not be released for another twenty years.
The Chopec still guarded the pass, but no enemy had tried to use it, either, for many months.
For their part, the Chopec were interested in the activities of the man who had been their sentinel, and when Jim explained more fully how Incacha's last act had been to pass the Way of the Shaman to Blair, it was made clear to the entire party that Blair was more than welcome, being greeted both as Jim's partner and as Incacha's heir.
In the morning they finally broached the subject of a guide to lead them to Charapek lands, as well as the acquisition of three canoes. Several men expressed a willingness to go, Qalluni among them; because he was a senior warrior, the others accepted that it was his right to accompany Enqueri, and Jim smiled his satisfaction; of all the men in the tribe, Qalluni was the one he would have chosen.
Because Stoddard had been there before, and more recently than Jim, he knew the kind of things the Chopec currently needed, and he had taken a supply of these to pay for the use of the canoes.
While the men readied the canoes, Fiona joined the women, asking them in very simple words about local plant foods; it would, she knew, be useful if she already knew a little before they encountered the Charapek, although she had no problem with appearing relatively ignorant in front of the Charapek women.
They had one more night with the Chopec and left first thing in the morning, Stoddard and Qalluni in the first canoe to lead the way, Neall and Fiona in the second, and Jim and Blair in the third, the sentinel bringing up the rear to watch for danger. They paddled steadily, making slow time against the current; when they stopped for a break a little after mid-day, Stoddard asked in his limping Quechua how far they had travelled.
Qalluni frowned, not really understanding the question. "We have travelled half the day," he said, clearly stating what he considered the obvious.
Stoddard glanced at Jim.
"He means, at the speed we've been going, how long will it take us to reach Charapek land?" Jim asked.
"At this speed, possibly eight days," Qalluni replied. "But we will soon have to take to the land for a while; the river becomes rocky and the current too fast for us to paddle. It might take us at least ten days to reach the Charapek."
Fiona handed some travel food around, adopting, in the presence of the Chopec warrior, the role he would expect of a woman. They ate, then rested for a while; Qalluni lay back and slept.
Jim grinned. "The old army maxim," he said quietly. "Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down, and grab sleep every chance you get. He'll sleep for maybe half an hour, and when he wakens, it'll be time to move on."
Stoddard nodded. "How far do you think we've come?" he asked.
Jim shook his head. "Impossible to be sure," he said. "The Chopec don't count travel in miles or even hours, they think more in terms of how many days a journey will take - I'm sure you're used to that?"
Stoddard nodded. "Yes, but I thought maybe Qalluni had had enough exposure to the outside world to have some concept of distance."
"Even in the outside world people often estimate distance by how long it will take," Blair reminded him.
Stoddard sighed. "I know," he said gloomily. "And you'd think by now I'd remember that. It's just... You've only written papers for academic journals or articles for anthropology magazines, so you're used to what people who read those understand as a matter of course. When you're writing a book about an expedition, something intended for the general public, the publishers expect you to include actual distances, not just how long the journey takes. If you say 'It was only ten miles, but it took us two days to get there', the publisher knows that the reader will understand the terrain is extremely difficult. If you just say, "It took us two days to get there", it could be relatively easy going and you've travelled fifty miles." He shrugged. "When you're writing a travel book intended purely for laymen, you've sometimes got to balance scientific accuracy against what sounds dramatic."
"You're planning a book about this trip?" Blair asked.
"A book and probably a paper. I was assuming you'd want to do a paper, too."
"Officially he'll feature in it as our interpreter. You will simply be one of my associates. There'll be no mention of sentinels or guides - you have my word on that."
Blair nodded and relaxed again. He hadn't doubted Stoddard's integrity, but recent experience had taught him wariness.
Jim was right; after about half an hour, Qalluni woke, sat up, and announced that it was time to move on.
They paddled on upstream against a current that was gradually getting stronger, and at last, with the rapids in sight just ahead of them, Qalluni indicated that they should land.
The light was already fading.
They lost no time in setting up their tents - one for Jim and Blair, one for Fiona and Neall, Stoddard on his own and a small tent for Qalluni, who was clearly surprised that Sta'art had thought to provide a tent for him; but from the smile on his face, it was equally clear that he appreciated the consideration.
As Fiona prepared a meal, Blair noticed that Qalluni was eyeing her with considerably more respect than he had shown when they set out, and he could understand why. She had spent the day paddling and now, without pausing for a rest, she was carrying out her womanly duties towards the men in the party; he had obviously realised that she would not be the burden to them that he had probably half expected so small a woman to be. He glanced at Neall, who grinned back at him, clearly well aware of the undercurrents.
They were all tired; the hours of unaccustomed paddling had left all but the Chopec physically exhausted - "And we'll probably be stiff tomorrow," Neall muttered. As soon as they had eaten, they headed for bed. There was no washing up to do; there were advantages to using large leaves as plates. The microcosm of the forest floor would welcome whatever food was left on them and the leaves themselves would either be eaten as well or quickly rot and soon become part of the leaf-mould that covered the ground.
They crawled into their tents. Blair fell asleep immediately. Jim lay awake for a few minutes longer, listening to the sounds of the forest, sounds he had once known well, re-imprinting them on his memory. Once he was satisfied that any new sound would waken him, he followed his guide into sleep.
Neall was right; apart from Qalluni they were all stiff in the morning, but all were experienced enough to know that once they started moving they would loosen up. Fiona in particular, aware of Qalluni's scrutiny, was determined to show no weakness.
The rapids were about half a mile long, Jim estimated, and if they had been closer to civilisation and accessible by road would undoubtedly have been considered a tourist attraction. As it was, they were nothing but a nuisance, and getting above the rocky stretch took them almost the whole day. There was already a path of sorts cut through the trees that leaned over the river, vying for the light that it gave them, but it had clearly not been used for some time.
Leading the way along it, Qalluni and Jim hacked at the encroaching growth, clearing the route once more. "How long since this path was used?" Jim asked as they went.
"Nearly a year," Qalluni admitted. "We don't often come this way. Just often enough that we do maintain a path. There are some plants growing above the rapids that we harvest every year or two."
Jim nodded. "I don't recall ever coming this way while I lived with the Chopec."
"We did come here once while you lived with us, but it was very soon after you arrived, and you had still not recovered your full strength."
Because the path was used so rarely, the ground underfoot was rough and uneven and it was impossible to travel quickly. It took them four trips to carry their gear from the bottom of the rapids to far enough past the top that they would not be carried instantly downstream again as soon as they returned to the water. The fifth trip took the canoes.
By the time the portage was finished, it was again getting dark, and Qalluni indicated that they could travel no further that day. They lost no time in pitching the tents again.
In the morning they had a quick breakfast, which Fiona prepared while the men took down the tents and repacked the canoes, then they took to the water again. Qalluni set a steady, not-too-fast pace, knowing that this was unaccustomed work for the people he was guiding. After a while, muscles that had stiffened again relaxed, and they began to enjoy the steady, monotonous, mindless labor. Their minds were free to explore other things.
Stoddard studied the banks of the river as he took mental notes of the creatures he saw - not that these were many; but native animals - especially dangerous ones - were always good for a chapter or two in a book, and if the 'adventures' he recounted were fictional - or preferably based on tribal experience, so that they were real, rather than actually happening to one of his party - how were his readers to know that? At worst it was a harmless... what was Blair's word again? Obfuscation, that was it.
Blair also studied the river banks taking note of the animals he saw, but he was more concerned about the relationship of the people with the animals. How many were truly dangerous to the people of the forest? How many were dangerous, but seldom attacked people? How many were totally harmless? Almost all, he knew, were potentially food for the people living there.
Neall and Fiona paid little attention to their surroundings. Both were more interested in the plant life of the forest than the animal life, and it was impossible to learn much - if anything - while they were travelling.
Jim was alert to every sound. He trusted that his guide's presence would keep him from zoning out, but knew that while he continued to paddle steadily the risk was vanishingly small, even although he was concentrating on one sense only - hearing.
Around mid-morning they reached another set of rapids, but this one was short, only a few yards, and keeping close to the shore they simply dragged the canoes, one at a time, to the top - although they slipped and stumbled on the rocks forming the rapids, and as they hauled the third one up Fiona, already waist-deep, lost her balance as she was taking a step forward. The force of the water lifted her and carried her downstream. Neall yelled automatically as he grabbed for her and missed. Blair, over-reaching as he tried to catch her, lost his footing as well. Both were carried almost the full length of the rapids to the bottom of the turbulent stretch. Breathless, even although it had only taken a few seconds, Fiona swam to the bank and clung to a protruding root, coughing, trying to catch her breath. There was no sign of Blair.
Deserting the canoe without a second thought, Jim and Neall both scrambled onto dry land and stumbled down the bank, Jim's eyes fixed on the pool. Mentally, he was screaming, "Not again!"
Neall stopped beside his wife, reaching to pull her out of the water. "You all right?"
Fiona panted for a moment. "Yes... just... swallowed some water..."
And then Jim gasped with relief as Blair's head appeared further down-river. It bobbed aimlessly for a moment, being carried further downstream, and Jim yelled, "Blair!" as he dived in. He swam faster than he had even done, afraid that Blair, who was clearly half-stunned, might go under again.
Just before Jim reached him, Blair looked round as if trying to orient himself, and the first thing he saw was his friend.
"I'm... all right," he gasped. "Just... a bit shaken, you know?"
"Sure. Come on, let's get onto dry land."
Keeping just downstream from him, Jim guided Blair back to the bank. He pulled himself out of the water, then as he helped Blair out he saw the blood.
"You're not all right," he said sharply. "Your arm... "
Blair stared stupidly at the long gash. "Must have hit a rock. I didn't even feel it," he said. "I still don't."
Jim checked it quickly. "Not deep, thank goodness," he said. "It looks worse than it probably is, but we don't want to take any chances with it. You've got stuff in your pack, don't you?"
"Yes. Fiona and Eli will, too."
They scrambled along the bank to rejoin the others, Jim firmly reminding himself, every step of the way, that Blair was a man grown, activity was the best counter-agent for shock, and that while it was perfectly acceptable to help someone with an injured leg or head, he shouldn't be seen, by Qalluni at least, to be making too much fuss over a cut arm that was no longer dripping blood. So he only helped Blair once, when the only possibly route was very close to a collapsed stretch of the bank, steadying him as he crossed the unstable part.
By the time they rejoined the others, Qalluni, Stoddard and Neall had hauled the last canoe to the top of the rapids and secured it.
Jim hurried to the canoe he shared with Blair, retrieved Blair's pack and found the medical kit. Blair grunted his thanks as he swallowed an antibiotic tablet, knowing that even although few people lived here, there was no saying what disease might lurk in the muddy water.
Jim smeared some antiseptic ointment on the gash and bandaged it carefully. "Okay?" he asked.
Blair moved it experimentally. "Feels fine," he said.
Qalluni indicated that they would take a short break, but Blair shook his head. "Not unless Feuna wants one. It'll be better if I keep moving." In English he added, "It'll get the adrenalin out of my system."
Fiona nodded her agreement. "I agree. No need to stop for such a minor accident."
So they continued on their way, Blair paddling as best he could although he knew that for the remainder of this day, at least, Jim would be doing more than his fair share of the work. His arm was no longer numb - perhaps shock was no longer numbing it - and he was aware of the steady throb of pain. But it was not incapacitating and he knew that as injuries went it was definitely superficial.
Soon after that they reached a fork where a tributary ran into the main river, and Qalluni turned his canoe into it. This river was much narrower, only perhaps ten yards wide, and it was darker; in places the canopy was unbroken, the trees on one side leaning over to touch the trees leaning over from the other, so that very little light penetrated. They paddled on through a twilight that seemed never-ending, save where it was broken here and there at points where the overhanging trees hadn't quite met. There seemed to be more animal life here; although there were still very few to be seen, their calls were steady and sometimes quite loud.
Despite her accident, Fiona set to as usual to prepare a meal when they set up camp that night. Jim went over to her after the tents were pitched. "You should leave that to one of us, at least tonight," he murmured in English.
She shook her head. "Jim, I'm sure you saw what the women's work was, when you lived with the Chopec."
"Well, yes, but you're not Chopec."
"No, but while we're here, I have to be seen to be a 'proper' woman. That means behaving as a woman of one of the tribes would. Don't worry about it - I don't mind. I'm quite used to it. Just as long as Neall doesn't try to act the caveman when we get home again."
By the fourth morning on the trail they were no longer stiff, neither Fiona nor Blair was showing any ill-effects from their involuntary swim the previous day and the gash on Blair's arm, when Jim checked it, looked healthy, although he gave Blair another antibiotic tablet and rebandaged the arm. No way was he taking chances with his guide's well-being. At the mid-day halt that day, Qalluni told Jim that they were now making better time than he had expected; that the journey would probably take just the eight days he had originally said, possibly even less. He sounded quite respectful, too, when he said it.
Jim grinned to himself. Qalluni was one of those who had had more exposure to the white man's culture than some of the Chopec, and clearly had underestimated what the party he was guiding was capable of doing.
"A tributary of a tributary of a tributary," Stoddard had told them, but in fact they turned into a dozen and more tributaries as they went. Some of these were nearly as large as the stream they fed, others were rather narrower. Qalluni seemed totally confident, however, even although he admitted he had never before visited Charapek land.
On the seventh morning, as they packed the canoes, Jim suddenly raised his head, aware of an intrusive noise. He listened; yes - there was a faint rustling in the undergrowth, and when he concentrated on it he could hear soft breathing and an extra heartbeat, fairly close.
"We're being watched," he said quietly, then, turning to look directly at the place from where he heard the sounds, he went on in Quechua. "We mean you no harm. We have come many days' journey to visit you."
There was silence for a moment, then a young native stepped out of the shelter of a bush. He looked to be around twelve - too old to be considered a boy, but barely old enough to be called a man, even here where children grew up quickly and were counted as adult as soon as they reached puberty.
Qalluni stepped forward, breaking into a flood of Quechua - a dialect just fractionally different from the one Jim knew - that was almost too fast for Jim to follow since he had to struggle for some of the words, and certainly too fast for the rest of the party, whose still-being-learned Quechua was very basic.
The young native answered, casting a quick glance at Jim, and Blair muttered, "What's he saying?" as the youth threw an equally fast glance at him before turning his attention back to Qalluni.
"I've just been introduced as sentinel... and you as shaman," Jim muttered.
After some minutes, Qalluni broke off his conversation and turned his attention back to Jim. "This is Machita. He is of the Charapek. Their village is half a day further on."
Jim translated for Stoddard to make sure the older man understood properly what had been said, then turned back to Qalluni. "Is he hunting? Can we help him?"
"No. Charapek youths must spend two hands of days in the forest, alone, before they are considered men; Machita cannot return to the village for another three days. He should not have spoken to us, and would not if you had not been aware him; but he recognises that it was impossible for him to avoid being seen by a sentinel, and he does not think it will affect the validity of his Rite, since he was watching us in case we meant danger to his people."
Again Jim translated.
"Has he any reason to think that strangers would mean danger to his people?" Blair asked in his slow Quechua, the incursions of Cyclops Oil into Chopec territory alive in his memory.
"No, but they seldom see strangers; even the Chopec rarely come this way," Qalluni replied, speaking fairly slowly to allow Blair to understand him.
As Blair nodded, Jim looked at the Charapek youth. "Go, then, and continue your Rite," he said. "We will see you again in three days."
The boy ducked his head and slipped back into the undergrowth.
Stoddard continued watching the place where Machita had disappeared for some minutes, then he said quietly, "Ten days alone is dangerous, but it's probably easier for the boys than some of the Rites further down the river."
Jim glanced at him questioningly.
"There's one area, for example, where a boy has to put his arm into a container full of ants, and hold it there while he is bitten by them. It's all right for him to gasp with the pain, even to shed tears, but if he screams or draws back before he is told he can, he fails. And believe me, it's extremely painful. All your instincts, your automatic reactions, are screaming at you to pull back away from the pain, but you have to grit your teeth and resist what your body is telling you to do. I had to do it, so that I was considered a man of the tribe, before they would fully accept me, and they gave me a container with a lot fewer ants than the boys get because basically it was a token rite - they assumed I'd been through my own tribe's ordeal at the proper age." He was silent for a moment, then added, "It's amazing how many of these rites, worldwide, involve tolerating pain stoically. I wonder why this tribe chose ten days of solitude instead?"
They paddled on upstream, and sure enough, by mid-day they reached the Charapek village. Qalluni caught a branch to hold the canoe in place; just downstream from him, Neall did the same. Jim took his canoe to the side of Stoddard's and steadied himself against it.
The village seemed to be deserted; Jim, concentrating on the apparent silence, knew better.
"We're being watched," he said softly, and with his free hand deliberately pointed to a bush which he knew held a watcher; from the steady quality of the heartbeat this had to be one of the senior men of the village, a man who would not let fear control him; most of the other heartbeats he could detect were faster, as if driven by fear. He raised his voice. "We come in peace to visit your people."
There was a moment of silence, and then, in a fashion almost identical to the way Machita had come from hiding, a man stepped from the shelter of the bush. "You knew I was there?"
Jim glanced at Qalluni, who said, "Enqueri was the Chopec sentinel until he returned to his own land."
Jim nodded. He said quietly, "There is no need for your people to fear us."
"Why do you come to visit us?" The question held a quiet dignity.
"My Chief - Sta'art - is a wise man among our people. He has spent time among the Chopec, and now he wishes to spend time with you, to see how your people live, for each tribe has different customs - ours, the Chopec, the Charapek, and many other tribes who live along the great river - and it is his pleasure to see these different customs and compare them."
"I do not know. I am only the sentinel of his party, in it to warn him of danger, if danger should approach. Qalluni of the Chopec is our guide; this is our shaman, La'ar, who is my partner - "
"Shaman? While you are here, will he act as shaman for us? Our last shaman died suddenly without having trained a successor, so we have no shaman."
Jim translated quickly; Blair stared at him in some horror for a split second before saying, "Tell them our customs are different, and my main responsibility is to you, but what I can do for them, I will."
Jim did so, then went on. "In the other canoe are our chief's helper and adviser, Neall, and his wife Feuna."
"I am Apuna, the chief of this village. You are welcome here."
Stoddard's party set up their camp a little way upstream from the Charapek village; once everything was organised, they walked back to the village, finding that the people had returned and resumed their normal occupations, although it did not need sentinel senses for them to be aware that they were being surreptitiously watched.
The covert attention was mostly on Jim and Blair, who had dispensed with the bandage, and was aware that the people were looking at the half-healed injury although nobody commented on it.
They soon fell into a pattern. On the morning after their arrival, the woman of the tribe - all ten of them, their ages ranging from around twelve to a wizened matriarch who was probably in her mid to late forties - and some of their children went out foraging. It was mostly the girls who accompanied their mothers; the only boys who went were probably younger than four or five, Fiona estimated; the older boys stayed in and around the village, playing with bows or short spears, learning the skills they would need in a few years' time.
Fiona fell into step with the women. "May I come?" she asked carefully in her halting Quechua. "I do not know all the plants here, but perhaps one of the children can show me what to gather?"
And so she found herself partnered with a solemn ten-year-old who clearly took her duties as teacher very seriously after her first embarrassed shock at being told by her mother that instead of working with her four-year-old sister, she must teach the stranger woman what was good to eat.
After a while, the child said, "It is easier teaching you than teaching my sister. You pay attention." She had already discovered that she must speak slowly if the stranger was to understand her.
Fiona smiled. "Your sister is still a child and does not yet understand how important gathering food is. She will pay more attention next season, when she is older."
Satisfied that she was establishing herself in the community, Fiona bent back to her work.
At the village, the men - all thirteen of them and the visitors - sat around talking while the boys disappeared into the undergrowth around the village. Their 'play' could very well result in a small rodent or two for the evening meal - the visitors, all with knowledge of the lives of the forest tribes, understood that as completely as the men of the village did. Jim automatically kept an ear on the boys, but he could hear nothing in the immediate neighbourhood that bespoke danger.
Several of the men were busy making new spears as they talked; Blair, who had cut several sticks suitable for fishing spears at one of their camps further downstream, began to work on the first of these while keeping part of his attention on Jim. Neall worked on a half-finished arrow, while Qalluni worked on a new bow.
Stoddard, with no hunting skills, merely sat and observed. His party was being accepted at face value much more readily than he had dared to hope. The important first impression was being made.
The conversation, unsurprisingly, turned to hunting; after a while Apuna said, "What animals do you hunt in your lands?"
Blair spoke first. Once or twice he had to get Jim to translate for him as he spoke of the big silver salmon he had often speared when he was younger; which led naturally to Neall's talking about hunting the bears "that also eat the salmon" while he gestured with the arrow. (Later, in the privacy of their own camp, he admitted that he had only hunted bears with a gun.)
By the time the women arrived back, the Charapek men had totally relaxed around their white visitors.
Life quickly became almost monotonous. Stoddard's party slept in their camp a little apart from the village, but their days were spent in the company of the tribe, and the tribe's daily routine did not vary by much. The men did not hunt every day, but the days they did hunt they usually brought back enough for several days.
That was when they called upon Blair to exercise his skills as shaman.
Blair had seen this before; the shaman sort of massaging the hunters to get rid of any evil spirits that might have entered their bodies. Massage was easy, although his version of it was different from anything the tribe had previously experienced; but it left the men relaxed and feeling good, and they agreed that the white men's shaman was powerful indeed.
A month after their arrival, another boy - Allacaya - left to spend his ten days in solitude. On his return he sought out Jim.
"Sentinel... how did you know you were a sentinel?"
Blair, sitting as always close to his partner, looked up sharply; Jim said, "I found I could see and hear things I had not been able to to see or hear before. But sentinels are rare in my land, and I did not know what I was until La'ar found me and explained it to me."
"I think... I think I might... Sentinel, I'm afraid!"
"I was very afraid," Jim replied quietly.
"You see things you couldn't see before? Hear things?" Blair asked; he no longer spoke hesitantly. Six weeks of constant exposure to the language had completed everyone's education in it.
"I see things, and smell things, more sharply than I ever did, and my food tastes different; but no, I don't hear things any better."
"Then you're only a part sentinel, but what you have are gifts that are of great value to your people," Blair said. He turned to Jim, and said formally, "Sentinel, would you care to test our young brother's abilities?"
Jim soon established that the young man did indeed have well-enhanced sight and smell and taste, fractionally enhanced hearing, but not touch.
"But who will help me?" Allacaya asked.
"Is there one among your friends who has always seemed closer to you than the others?" Blair asked, for his memory of how easily he and Jim had slipped into a close friendship led him to believe that a sentinel and a guide would always be drawn to each other.
Allacaya shook his head. "There is only Machita close to my age, and we have never been close friends," he said.
"What of the older men?" Blair asked.
"I have only now become a man," Allacaya replied. "I do not know any of them well."
"What, then, of those who are still boys?" Jim asked.
Allacaya looked at him in some surprise. "We cannot ask a boy to take a man's responsibility," he said.
"Is there one of them you feel particularly close to?" Blair asked quietly, using his most persuasive voice.
"My brother - but he is three seasons younger than I. All the other boys are even younger. There was illness in our tribe when Machita and I were young, and many children died."
Jim and Blair glanced at each other. In this environment boys grew up quickly, but a three-year difference meant that the younger brother was probably only about nine, just possibly ten, and certainly needed a lot more play practice to sharpen the skills he would require as an adult -
Or would he? If he was the guide this sentinel needed, the skills he would need would be different.
"Let us speak to your brother," Blair said. "If he has no potential to assist you, then we must think again. If he has that potential, we must speak to Apuna."
As Allacaya led them to his parents' house, Blair said, in English, "Jim, what if the only possible guide is one of the women?"
They glanced at each other. While the women's contribution to the relative prosperity of the village was acknowledged by the men and there was no obvious discrimination between the sexes, there was no doubt that the work of the village was very clearly divided between what the men always did and what the women did - a differentiation that had originally come about in such tribes because of the demands on the women of bearing and caring for the children.
"That might prove difficult," Jim said quietly.
Allacaya's father looked up as his now-adult son - who from that day would be living in the house shared by the single men - approached the family house.
"Allacaya," he acknowledged. "Enqueri. La'ar."
It was Jim, as the acknowledged sentinel, who spoke. Without formalities, he said quietly, "Your son has some of the abilities of a sentinel."
"You are sure of this, Enqueri?"
"I am sure. He can see, taste and smell things very acutely, although he does not hear much better than an ordinary man nor feel the details of things by touching them. When I leave to return to my own tribe, I will not be leaving your people without a sentinel." He glanced at Blair.
"A sentinel needs a companion, however," Blair said. "Allacaya tells us that he and Machita, the only man close to his age, have not been drawn together as friends; besides, neither Enqueri nor I have seen in Machita any signs that he could be a sentinel's helper.
"Allacaya said, however, that he has always been close to his younger brother. It could be that his brother, even although he is still only a boy, could be the companion that Allacaya needs."
"Akoya will not be a man for three seasons - what if he too returns from his days of solitude as a sentinel?"
It was a legitimate question, and even as Blair shook his head he realised why this tribe had chosen the ten days of solitude as a Rite of Passage; if any of them had sentinel abilities, it would show up during this time. "I have visited many tribes with Sta'art, and I have never found a tribe that had more than one sentinel at a time."
Jim said, "If La'ar and I might speak with Akoya, and see Akoya with Allacaya, we would know. And if Akoya shows the abilities he needs to work with Allacaya, then he must begin to do so immediately, boy though he still is. It is not good for a sentinel to lack the steadying touch of his companion."
The man nodded, and called for his younger son.
It was immediately clear that the boy was indeed the guide that his older brother needed, and Blair said so, adding, "The skills he will need are different from those he would need as a man of the tribe, although he must of course undergo his days of solitude when he comes of age to do so. Meanwhile, for the time that we are here, I will teach him some of what he needs to know to work with his brother, although each companion must learn for himself the best way to help his sentinel."
Akoya said nothing as he looked from man to man, clearly wondering what was happening. Blair turned to him, and speaking to him as he would to an adult, he explained the situation, finishing with, "So although you will not, properly speaking, be a man for another three seasons, you must take on a man's responsibilities now, for your sentinel needs you now. Do you think you can do this?"
There was a gleam in the boy's eyes that Jim could recognise; he had seen it many times in his own guide's eyes, and he knew that the boy had the same need to help others that Blair had. "Yes." He turned to his father. "I understand that I must be with Allacaya to help him. Yet in three seasons I must leave him for ten days if I am to be accepted as a man. How can I do that? Yet I must, for how can I help him properly if I am never accepted as a man? Could I do it now, while La'ar is here to help Allacaya in my absence - if Enqueri agrees to share his companion?"
"I think Akoya could do his days of solitude now," Blair said quietly. "Some people grow up more quickly than others, and if he understands his responsibilities to his sentinel so clearly, I would say he is certainly mature enough to undergo his Rite. It will be easier for them both if he too is a man, not a boy. Enqueri and I will help Allacaya while Akoya is away."
"Apuna might not agree."
"We will speak to Apuna," Blair said.
And so it was decided. Although Allacaya lacked hearing - the one sense that in some ways was the most useful - the senses he did have meant that for the first time in many seasons the Charapek would have a part sentinel, and Apuna was not going to argue with the visiting sentinel and shaman when they said Akoya was ready to take on the responsibilities of a man so that he could partner his brother.
Over the next ten days they spent much time with Allacaya, encouraging him to extend the senses he had, and when Akoya returned they continued to work with the two youngsters for some days, helping and advising, before withdrawing to their own camp to allow the young men to establish their own position in the tribe.
Stoddard was more than happy at the progress his expedition was making. They had been fully accepted by the tribe, and they - at least the four anthropologists among them - were amassing notebooks full of data on the everyday lives of these people who might be unsophisticated - as white men understood the term - but were far from primitive. Now, three months into their stay, he was coming to the relieved conclusion that six months would indeed be long enough to complete their observations - even although he always selected his team members carefully, choosing them from a pool of a dozen or so that he trusted completely, during every expedition he lived with the ever-present fear that their very presence might damage the culture they had come to study. It was never easy for someone from a more technologically advanced background to adapt totally to a simpler way of life; there were too many things they took for granted, from something as basic as toilet paper upwards.
Tempted though he had been to start a totally new study focussing on Allacaya and Akoya as sentinel - well, part sentinel - and guide, with a view to writing an article about them, Blair knew that it would be a mistake, for it would draw attention once more to his original dissertation. The one thing he must never mention in any future paper was 'heightened senses'. He was however unable to resist the temptation to make notes about them for his own use in case something they did might be of help to Jim - and for his own interest, to see how a different pair dealt with things in a totally different environment.
It was a beautiful night.
A moon just a day or two short of full was shining from a night sky that for once was cloudless - most nights were cloudy with the remnants of the water vapour that rose from the trees during the day and condensed in the coolness of the upper sky, and for once Stoddard's party lingered round their fire after darkness fell.
Suddenly Jim lifted his head, listening intently.
"Jim?" Blair said.
Jim snapped back to them. "There was what sounded like an explosion, and now I can hear flood water," he said. "We've got to get to the higher ground away from the river - "
"The village!" Blair exclaimed. He was already moving. He paused long enough to grab his backpack and the one that Jim, following his lead, also kept full of emergency equipment, shrugging into his own as he ran. Fiona did the same; Neall paused to wait for her, then they scrambled after the others, all of them grateful for the moonlight.
As they ran into the village, Jim was already shouting. "Flood! Flood! Get to the higher ground!" He grabbed his pack from Blair and draped it over one shoulder.
The tribe came scrambling from their huts. "The river is flooding. We've only got a few minutes. Run!"
Even as he spoke, Jim was scooping up one of the younger children; the others paused to do the same. Fiona took a toddler from a woman who was already showing her next pregnancy, swinging it easily onto her back where it sat on top of her pack, clinging to it. Neall caught the hand of a child old enough to run but who would probably need to be pulled along. Qalluni took another, while Blair helped one of the men with his wife, who was heavily pregnant and even with their help could only stumble along at a speed little more than a walk. Stoddard supported one of the older men who had hurt his leg a day or two earlier. The adults of the tribe were also helping children - most of whom were very young.
With Akoya at his side, Allacaya brought up the rear of the group, taking this to be his duty as tribal sentinel, and when one of the girls, a child just a little younger than Akoya, began to drop back, unable to maintain the pace her elders were setting, he swung her onto his back although she was heavy for him to carry. He was, after all, a man of the tribe and it was his responsibility to help the children.
They were undoubtedly lucky, Stoddard knew, that here, on this side of the river, the ground sloped upwards more quickly than it did even a mile or two downstream; within two or three minutes they were fully fifty feet higher than they had been, and Jim paused, turning to look towards the river, aware that Allacaya was doing the same thing. He could see the water now as it glinted in the moonlight, rushing downstream in a huge wave that had already spread sideways over the opposite bank, and as the leading waters passed perhaps twenty feet below them he could clearly see one or two animal bodies among the debris that was being carried along with it.
He looked at Qalluni. "Your village?" he asked.
"The water will have spread out even further by the time it reaches there," Qalluni replied confidently. "It will not be so deep or so fast that it will be more than a minor nuisance, if it is even that. It might not even overflow its banks."
Satisfied that they were safe, the group settled down, automatically forming family units; but Jim and Blair sat all night watching as the water dropped right back to its original level and below it, finally leaving the bed of the river almost dry.
In the morning the tribe made its way back down to where the village had been. There was nothing left of it, nothing left of the visitors' camp; and the canoes had vanished along with everything else.
With Blair at his side, Jim stood for some minutes looking at the nearly-dry river bed, only half aware of the activity behind him as the men of the tribe, Stoddard, Neall and Qalluni with them, scattered to begin getting wood to build temporary shelters for the coming nights - proper huts would be built later - and the women, including Fiona, went off to gather food. Allacaya came over to join them, Akoya beside him.
"How can we best help the tribe?" he asked. "We want to join the other men in rebuilding, but is that the best thing for us to do?"
Jim looked at him for a moment. "Can you tell me what is upstream from here?"
"There is a lake a day's journey from here," Allacaya said. "We all know of it, although I have never seen it. The river comes out of it in a big waterfall, my father said - he journeyed to it once in his youth. When he told me about it, he said evil spirits live there."
Jim nodded. "I think it is no longer there," he said quietly. He looked at Blair, continuing in English. "I'm not surprised to hear there was a lake. All that water had to come from somewhere like a burst dam.
"The first thing I heard was an explosion, then the water. I think someone blasted away the rock holding the water back so that the lake would drain. I want to go there to see why for myself; I keep remembering how Cyclops Oil was drilling illegally on Chopec land. You'll come with me, of course; and I think it might be as well if Neall came too." He turned back to Allacaya, reverting to Quechua. "You can best help the tribe by helping to rebuild the village. In a day or two, once there are enough huts built to shelter everyone, my companion and I, and our friend Neall, will go and see why the river flooded."
"I should come with you."
"And I," Akoya agreed.
Jim smiled, recognising the young men's courage; he could sense their fear of the evil spirits they had been told about. "Allacaya, you are the tribal sentinel; your responsibility is to help the tribe. But I understand what you say. We will take two of your men with us, if any are willing to come."
He could only hope that they would not be too traumatised by what he feared they might find.
"Yes," Apuna said when Jim spoke to him. "I, too, have been wondering why the river flooded so suddenly. It was in my mind to send someone to the lake, once we built shelters for the tribe. I would be grateful if you went."
Jim said quietly, "I also think it wise if two of your men were to accompany me, for they will be better able to judge how lasting the damage is. Allacaya and his companion are willing to go, but I think that at the moment their place is here."
Apuna nodded agreement, and as the men began to return with wood he called them over and told them to wait. Once they were all gathered, he told them what had been decided, and asked who would be willing to travel to the lake with the visitors.
Machita and Apuna's oldest son Pauqar, who looked to be in his mid teens, volunteered before anyone else had the chance to do so. Jim grinned to himself, suspecting that they were just a little jealous of the status Allacaya and Akoya, both younger, had attained, and that they were probably anxious to prove that their courage was in no way lacking.
As the visitors moved away, Stoddard admitted that he was less than happy about any of the Charapek being in the party checking out the lake. "You said you heard an explosion," Stoddard said. "It would be better if we could keep that secret. How can anyone disguise the signs of that?"
"I don't know that we can," Jim admitted. "However, this is their land, and they are the ones who have been affected by this, probably permanently. It's their right to have some of their own people see what happened."
"And if you're worried about interference, about their lifestyle being affected - this isn't something we've done," Blair added. "What we have done - if we weren't here, everyone from the village would be dead."
"It's possible that what we say about it can minimise the impact on them," Jim went on.
"And Eli, even if we keep it from them now, they're bound to find out about it after we leave. If we can explain it to them, simply, don't you think that will probably be less damaging than having them wonder what magic caused it?" Blair asked. "They're bound to wonder why the spirits targeted them, and maybe start wondering if it was because they welcomed strangers."
Stoddard looked thoughtful. "You know, in all my years of travel, I've never encountered anything like this. I've only ever had to worry about any impact my own party might have. You're probably right, and I've maybe become too complacent, thinking that what I do is the best, the only thing." He looked hopelessly from one to the other. "The one thing uppermost in my mind is how best to help the Charapek get back to normal."
"I doubt it's possible for them ever to get totally back to normal," Jim replied, his voice quiet, almost gentle.
Two days later, with two shelters - one for the men, one for the women - built, the five men set off in mid-morning. The evening before they left, Blair went through the contents of his pack and Jim's, sorting out a few items that he thought might be of use to them on the journey and putting them into one pack, while the remainder he stored carefully in the other pack, which he left with Stoddard.
The ground was still quite wet, but apart from that the going was fairly easy, for the flood water had swept away a lot of the natural debris of the forest floor and they did not have to clamber over fallen branches, so by late afternoon, faster than they had expected, they reached the empty basin where the lake had been.
Although it had been big enough to cause a nasty flood some ten or twelve miles downstream, it had not been particularly large or particularly deep as lakes went. It had clearly been created by natural drainage being trapped behind a fairly narrow volcanic dyke; overflow from the lake had eroded away a lot of the soil from in front of it. Some of the rock from the collapsed part of the dyke lay close to it, but it was clear that much of it had been swept at least some way downstream by the force of water escaping from the dam.
They paused to look at the rock. Jim took several deep breaths as Neall said, "The weight of water could have shattered the rock, if there was any weakness in it."
"Neall, that's basalt," Blair said. "I'm not a geologist, man, but I know enough to know basalt's a tough rock that erodes slowly. Limestone that had been pitted by the water, or even sandstone, might give way suddenly, but not basalt."
Jim shook his head. "It didn't just give way. I can smell explosive," he said quietly, in English. "It's very faint now, but I can still smell it."
A thread of water was trickling from the muddy bed of the lake. He jumped over it, took half a dozen steps, leaned down and picked up a long cord. "Someone detonated the explosive from a safe distance. He wasn't going to risk lighting a short fuse and running."
The two Charapek watched him with puzzled faces. Jim looked at Blair. "You're the shaman, Chief. How do we explain this?"
Blair frowned. "It's not so much the how of it that's difficult to explain; it's the why," he growled. He thought for a minute, then looked directly at the two Charapek.
"Is this the work of the lake demons?" Pauqar asked. Despite him best efforts to sound impassive, his voice quivered just a little.
"It is the work of men," Blair said. "The work of evil men, possibly an evil shaman, who had the means to call down lightning to strike the rock that held back the water, and shatter it."
"We don't know that yet, but Enqueri will do what he can to find out."
Neall was staring out over the muddy bed of the drained lake. "Do any rivers run into the lake?" he asked.
The two young Charapek looked at each other. Then Machita said slowly, "The lake fed our river. But unless more water ran into it, it would not have overflowed to feed our river."
"So where is that water?" Neall asked.
Jim, too, had been staring over the muddy bed of the lake towards the far shore. Blair moved to join him. "Jim?"
"You see those rocks over there?" Jim asked, speaking English.
Blair sighed. "Jim, you're the sentinel, the one with enhanced sight. My sight is normal, and the light is beginning to go. So yes, I can make out some rocks - but which ones, Jim?"
"About a third of the way along the far shore from the left-hand side."
Blair grunted. He focussed on the shoreline, and followed it along - and then drew in a sharp breath.
"I can't see it all that clearly, but it seems to me... those rocks aren't natural. That's the ruins of a temple."
"That's what I thought." He changed to Quechua. "I have seen something that might answer some of our questions," he said, and turned to lead the way along the shoreline.
"Jim," Blair said.
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
Jim thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't think so."
"It's getting dark. You can see where you're going, and you could probably lead one of us safely, but I don't think you can lead all four of us over this terrain. We're going to have to stop for the night then go on in the morning."
As they settled, Blair scrabbled in his backpack and brought out a cloth bag of mixed nuts. "Not very filling," he said as he gave a double handful to each of them, "but it's better than nothing."
They settled down for the night. They all slept well, although Jim was wakened more than once by distant, unfamiliar sounds; once he registered that they were indeed distant, he slept again without wakening any of the others.
Dawn found them all moving. Blair handed out some more nuts, which did little to satisfy their hunger but - as he had said - were better than nothing, and then they set off along what had been the edge of the lake, finding it easiest to remain among the trees.
After a while they found themselves on what had clearly been the bank of one of the feeder rivers. It was several yards wide, its bed as muddy as the bed of the lake, and they paused.
"Easier to cross it further upstream," Neall commented, and Jim nodded. They headed up the river channel, and after about half an hour came to a point where it narrowed quite considerably, with one bank fairly high but levelling off, and the other rising steeply above it. But that bank was torn as if by a landslip, and a great pile of rocks had fallen, damming the river. Jim breathed deeply, scenting the air.
"It's faint, but I can smell explosive here too," he said in English. "Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to empty the lake and keep it empty, at least for some days."
Pauqar scrambled up the pile of rock to the top; he called down, "There is a new lake forming here. In a day or two it will overflow the rocks and the river will flow again."
He slithered back down to rejoin the others, and they went on.
As they approached the rocks Jim had noticed, the temple shape became more obvious; though Blair considered that the different angle from which they were now seeing it might have something to do with their recognition of it.
"What is it?" Pauqar asked in an awed voice.
"A stone hut built by your ancestors - in your father's father's father's times, many generations ago," Blair said quietly.
"Stone?" Machita asked. "How can anyone build with stone?"
"It is difficult," Blair said. "Our tribe can build in stone, but we can build nothing to equal this. These people had skills nobody today has."
They went a little further, and then Jim stopped, holding up his hand. "I hear voices," he said softly. "I can't make out what they're saying." He studied the area for some minutes, then added, "And now that we've moved, I can see where someone has been digging in the mud beside the temple."
Blair snapped his fingers. "Offerings," he said, and Neall nodded agreement.
"Offerings?" Machita looked puzzled.
"Your people have said there were demons here," Blair said, and the two Charapek murmured assent. "And this is not the only place where demons lived. Your ancestors knew of these demons, and everywhere they were known, these stone huts were built, and at certain times every season things of value were given to the demons so that they would leave the tribes alone."
He was interrupted by Jim's hand gripping his shoulder. "Look."
A man had appeared from behind the temple, and as they watched he was joined by three more. All were carrying spades. They waded through the mud until they were beside the already disturbed mud, then they began to dig.
Before long one of them obviously found something; he lifted something round on his spade, reached over to it, wiped some of the mud off it, looked at it, grunted and said something, and casually tossed it away.
"Not English," Blair muttered. "Could be Spanish, though he's too far away for me to make out exactly what he said - I'm guessing from the sound and rhythm of his speech."
"What did he find?" Neall, who hadn't been able to see the object properly, asked quietly, warned by hearing the voice carrying so clearly.
"A skull," Jim said grimly.
Blair nodded. "Human sacrifice. Very common. What could they offer of more value than the best of their young men and women?"
"And completely valueless to these... " Jim gave a disgusted growl.
"We have to stop them," Blair murmured.
"How?" Neall asked grimly. "I see don't see any, but I'm sure they'll have guns. And even if we do, how do we get them back to Lima? We're going to have enough of a problem getting ourselves back to Chopec territory without carting prisoners along."
"I'm asking myself how they got in here," Jim said. "They didn't come up the river, even during the night, or we'd have heard them." He glanced at the Charapek. "Is there another river anywhere near?"
The young men looked at each other. "Not in the land where we hunt. My father or another of the older men might know of one," Pauqar said. "The tale has been told of a time when our fathers were young and there was hunger in the land. The animals had all left the area near the village. The only food was what the women could find, and they were having to go further and further each day to gather it; they needed so much time each day to walk to where they could find food, there was not time for them to harvest enough to feed the village. The tribe had to move, going to where the men could hunt once more. So the older men know lands that we do not."
"And it may have become time for the tribe to move again," Jim murmured sympathetically. "All right," he went on more briskly. "Neall, you stay here, watching these men. I think they'll probably spend most of the day digging, but in case they don't - if they look like moving back to the temple, let me know. Just say something like, 'They're moving.' I'll be listening for your voice. Blair and I will scout around, see what we can find out."
Jim looked at the Charapek. "I know gathering plant food is work for the women," he said, "but can you find anything we can eat around here, without letting yourselves be seen by these men? Yes, I know you could kill something, but we dare not risk a fire to cook the meat. These men are evil, remember. When they broke the rock holding the water back, they gave no thought to any villages that the flood water might destroy. If they were to see any of us now, they would surely kill us, for they know that they are doing wrong and they would seek to remove anyone who saw their actions."
"What will you do?" Machita asked.
"You know that among ourselves, we speak in words you do not understand." The young men nodded. "These men speak yet another language that I do not understand. La'ar and I will go closer to these men, until he can hear what they are saying, for he can understand their words. Then it will be easier for us to plan how to stop them, for it is not good that the things the demons have been given should be stolen from them."
"If the demons are angry, these men will be gone, and we, who live nearest here, would suffer the punishment?" Machita asked.
Jim nodded gravely. "It is possible."
Blair looked at his backpack then glanced at Neall, who grinned. "Yes, I'll look after it for you. You and that pack - you might as well be married to it!"
Blair grinned back. "With what I have in it, I can survive most things," he replied quietly, then, to Jim, "I'm ready."
Moving steadily, knowing that they were hidden by the trees, Jim led the way for three or four hundred yards until they reached a point where they could see the ruined temple more clearly. He lay down; Blair, who had been following a yard to two behind, moved to lie beside him.
"They must have a camp," Blair breathed.
"They might be living in the temple," Jim murmured.
"I certainly wouldn't," Blair told him. "I know it looks reasonably solid, but I wouldn't bet on some of the stones not being eroded enough to fall."
"The Temple of the Sentinels seemed solid enough," Jim said.
"I suspect it remained in use long after some of these other ones were abandoned - though we can't ever know for certain," Blair said. "I think this one might have been abandoned even before the Spaniards arrived, but even if it wasn't, it's still been derelict for several hundred years."
Jim grunted acknowledgement of the comment, then concentrated, listening. "If you're to hear what they're saying, we'll have to get closer."
"No kidding," Blair muttered dryly.
They wriggled forward. After some minutes, Jim paused. "You were right," he said softly. "There's their camp."
Four small tents stood a short distance from the ruin. There was nobody near them - the occupants were clearly all digging in the drained lake bed. Jim and Blair wriggled on.
"I can make out what they're saying," Blair whispered at last. Jim stopped immediately and waited patiently for Blair to tell him what was being said.
"Not very informative," Blair said after s minute or two. "Mostly they're grumbling about how muddy it is - I get the impression they mostly expected the lake bed to be - oh, stone, gravel, with a lot of the artifacts just lying there waiting to be picked up. The one who seems to be the leader is telling them to get on and dig - the helicopter will be back for them in another three days."
"Helicopter? I wonder why I never heard it - they can't have been here long."
"Have you heard any aircraft while we've been here?"
"A few," Jim admitted. "Mostly pretty distant - I don't suppose anyone else heard them."
"So you could have heard it but not paid any attention."
Jim nodded. "I suppose. But I should have been paying attention!"
"Jim, you can't blame yourself. We didn't have any reason to think there might be an old Incan sacrificial site here - however these guys found out about it - or that someone would decide to... well, mine it." They watched for a while in silence as the digging men put mud-covered discs into the sacks they carried and threw away what looked like more bones. After a while one of the men waded back to dry ground and emptied his sack, leaving a muddy heap, then returned to where he had been digging.
"Stay here," Jim said suddenly. "I'm going to check out their camp. No - " he held up his hand to stop Blair's automatic protest. "I'll be all right. My training means I can get in and out in minutes - you don't have that training, you'd take too long to do it quietly; and anyway, I need you to stand guard for me. If they look like they're going to break for lunch, just say my name and I'll get the message."
"Okay." Blair was far from happy, but he accepted Jim's reasoning. As Jim slipped away, Blair settled down to watch and listen to the spasmodic conversation from the lake.
There was, however, no sign that any of the men planned to leave their digging for quite some time, and the grumbling had died away; they were now digging in silence, moving slowly as they did.
They were, Blair decided, probably missing a lot of the treasure that lay there. Some had certainly been thrown into the lake from the temple; but it was possible that more had gone in from other places round the shore or even been taken to the middle of the lake on a raft.
Of course, he realised, their leader was possibly ignorant of that, and thought that a few days would indeed be enough to find most of what lay under the mud. This was certainly their second day of digging, possibly even their third, with another couple of days to go, assuming that they spent the third day the leader had mentioned getting everything packed and ready to go as soon as their helicopter arrived. What they found in that time would certainly be enough to make them all wealthy - or one man very wealthy, he thought with a cynicism that he knew had been engendered by his years working with the police.
A movement to one side caught his attention, and he glanced round, to see Jim crawling back towards him.
"They've already dug out a fortune in gold and silver artifacts, mostly plates," Jim muttered. "One or two necklaces, but not much that's small."
Blair grunted. "They'd need to sieve the mud to get the small stuff. I don't think they know all that much about what they're looking for. Well - the guy that's the boss might, but it seems to me the others are hired help."
"That's what I thought, too," Jim said. "I'm just wondering, though, if they're on a one-way ticket without knowing it."
"Jim, I know you can be pretty cynical at times, but even for you that's a harsh comment." Blair might have admitted to himself that he harboured a similar suspicion, but he refused to admit it openly, even to Jim.
"They were brought in by helicopter," Jim said. "This part of the rain forest is deserted - the Charapek don't come this way. Why didn't the helicopter stay? My guess is that the boss didn't want the men to start wondering if it would be able to carry them all and the weight of gold they're collecting. They've got a quite a lot in their camp and they'll dig out more yet. There's no way your average helicopter could carry it all as well as the men." He was silent for a moment, then said, "Let's get back to the others."
They wriggled backwards, then once they were confident they were out of sight of the digging men, should one of them take his attention from his work, they rose to their feet and walked briskly back to where they had left the others.
Speaking English, Neall greeted them with, "Thank heavens you're back! Jim, Pauqar has gone back to bring the Charapek men here. Machita says it's up to them to stop these guys - " He nodded towards the digging men - "to placate the lake demons."
Jim frowned. "He could be right."
"Right? Jim, they'll kill those men!" Even in his anger Neall remembered to keep his voice down.
"If they wait a couple of days, I think the leader will kill the other three himself," Jim said. "But Neall, you're an anthropologist. You know how these tribes think. What punishment does a tribe like this consider the only logical one to inflict on men who have harmed their environment and possibly angered the local demons?"
Neall frowned. "Like I said, they'll kill them."
Jim nodded. "And whatever we believe is the right thing to do, do we have the right to stop them, here in their own territory?" Neall looked at Blair, who shook his head. "Don't look to me to back you. He's right, and you know it. If we interfere, the rot sets in. It means we're trying to impose our mores on the Charapek, trying to influence their way of life. We can't do that."
"Eli isn't going to like this."
"Did I say I do? That Jim does? Or even that Eli will? But you know how he feels about - "
"If we hadn't investigated - "
"What I said to Eli still holds good. One or two of the Charapek men would have come here anyway, next week or next month. By being here we can try to minimise the effects of this... this 'civilised' attack on a native culture and help the tribe to get back on its feet.
"Think with your head, Neall, not your moral sense. If these men get back to civilisation with the artifacts they've collected, if even just one of them does, how long do you think before they, or someone else, comes back to dig some more, see if there's some more to steal? Will they care about preserving, or at least not interfering with, the Charapek way of life? This lot could have killed off the Charapek and not even realised they'd done it. Do you think, when they set their explosive, that they cared, even if they had known there was a village just a few miles downstream?"
"And Neall, I'm not sure they didn't know," Jim added. "Why else blow the rock dam at night, when everyone would be in their huts and asleep? If they thought they were in an uninhabited area, there was no reason not to do it in daylight when they could see clearly what they were doing. But during the day hardly anyone would be in the village, and they - or their leader - would know that.
"They might or might not have known about us, but even if they had, what was another six deaths going to mean to them? Nothing."
"We ought to try to take them back to stand trial," Neall protested, but it was clear to both sentinel and guide that he was not speaking from total conviction.
"I know," Jim said. "That was my first thought. But even assuming we could capture them and get them back to civilisation - and without canoes we'll have enough problems getting ourselves back - what could they be charged with that a Lima court would regard as serious? They drained a small lake - but provided a dam upstream that's making a new one. A small village was washed away in the flood they caused - but it's easy for them to say they didn't know it was there. They're digging up artifacts, and we're saying stealing them - but stealing them from whom? The things were sacrifices to the gods - or demons - centuries ago. And if they're arrested here, they could easily claim that they planned to take everything they dug up to a museum as part of the history of their country. The court mightn't believe that, but it couldn't be disproved and the stuff they've got this time probably would end up in a museum. Even if the verdict was guilty, they'd get off with no more than a slap on the wrist, and a month later they'd be back digging up some more artifacts to sell - and knowing that the Charapek are there, maybe collecting them at gunpoint, shooting someone to make their point, and forcing them to do the digging."
"That's a worst case scenario," Neall said weakly.
"Can you realistically come up with a better one?" Blair asked, his voice unhappy.
Neall looked at him and slowly shook his head.
Pauqar arrived back, accompanied by most of the men of the village, Qalluni and Stoddard, just as it was getting dark. The only man missing was the elderly one with the injured leg. Stoddard was clearly in some physical distress - the group had obviously made a forced march to get there that same day. Pauqar, too, was exhausted, but holding his head up proudly.
As the group joined the four men who had moved back to hide near the shattered dam, Jim held up a hand. "Speak quietly," he murmured.
Apuna nodded. "Pauqar has told us there are evil men here," he said. "Do you know anything more?"
Blair was watching Stoddard as Jim gave the Charapek a concise explanation of what was happening.
"They must die," Apuna said.
"Is there no other way?" Stoddard asked.
"I think not," Jim said. Switching to English, he added, "We've had time to discuss this. None of us think there's any feasible alternative to letting the Charapek deal with it."
"They live according to their laws, not knowing any other," Stoddard agreed. "Yes, I see that. But it's still murder."
"Execution," Jim said.
In the morning, just after the men began to dig in the mud once more, the Charapek men made their cautious way round the edge of the lake, leaving their five visitors beside the ruined dam. Qalluni and Jim both offered to accompany them, but Apuna refused.
"This is our task; our duty to our land. We are the ones who must appease the demons who have been angered by the actions of these men."
"When they are dead, we will join you and help you to return to the lake the offerings they have stolen from it," Jim said.
"When they are dead, we will be grateful for your help," Apuna said, and led his men away.
Stoddard's group waited and watched, and before long first one of the diggers, then the other three, collapsed in the mud and sank out of sight. Only Jim had seen the arrows that struck them down. The mud heaved for a moment where one of the men had disappeared, then stilled.
Jim led the group round the lake.
The Charapek were waiting for them in solemn silence; as Jim had said, this was an execution, a duty undertaken, and the men all understood the seriousness of what had been done. He led them on to the ruined temple, to the camp.
"We could use a lot of those things," Stoddard said hopefully, indicating the tents. "If we kept them it would replace some of what we lost."
"No," Apuna said. "Everything that belonged to these men must be given to the demons."
Stoddard nodded reluctant agreement.
Moving quickly, the party gathered up all the camping equipment, all the artifacts; there had not been water to wash them clean, but an attempt had been made to wipe the worst of the mud off a lot of the plates, and they could see the patterns incised on them, patterns that bespoke a high level of skill. Blair looked thoughtfully at the old temple as he carefully selected a large, ornate gold plate, remembering what he had said to Jim about stones falling from it, then gritted his teeth and led the way up the crumbling steps. He - although a visitor - was accepted by the tribe as a shaman, the only one here. He had a shaman's duty to perform.
At the top was a platform where he paused, gazing out over the sea of mud, trying not to see the fifty-foot drop to the ground and glad it was not one of the much bigger temples that had been excavated. He raised the plate in both hands, holding it above his head.
Keep it short, and keep it simple! he reminded himself, then began speaking. "Lords of the lake! We have already given you the blood of those who thought to steal from you. We can do nothing about the water that has gone, but here we return to you that which was stolen and all the property of the thieves. We ask that you do nothing to harm us, for we are victims who have lost everything because of the evil these men did."
Blair held his position for two or three seconds, then threw the plate as far as he could. It arched out and down, turning over as it fell, then hit the mud with a resounding splat and slowly disappeared. Once it had gone he said quietly, "The gift has been accepted. Let the lords of the lake receive the rest of their property."
He stepped back. One by one the Charapek mounted to the platform and threw the treasures they carried into the mud. Last of all came Stoddard, Jim, Qalluni and Neall, to throw the camping gear into the mud.
Blair stepped forward again. "It is done." He bowed towards what had been the lake, then turned and made his way down the steps, followed by the others; and only Jim heard the soft sigh of relief Blair gave when his feet were once more on the ground.
Neall glanced at Jim, having first checked that Stoddard was out of earshot; Stoddard was worried enough about events without hearing about anything else that might cause problems. "What about the helicopter that was coming for them?" he breathed.
"I don't think we need worry about it. It'll come in, the pilot will see there's no camp, think his passengers have gone elsewhere, not know where, and probably go home again. Whatever, we need to get the Charapek away from here before it arrives."
Neall nodded agreement even as he said, "It struck me we could use it to get ourselves home."
"There's three months of the expedition still to go," Blair pointed out. "It'll be interesting seeing how a tribe like this comes to terms with losing everything, and I for one would like to help them rebuild."
Back at the village, the women had been busy; there was food enough for all, quickly prepared once the men arrived. Once they had eaten, however, Apuna said, "I have been considering what best to do, and I think it is time for us to move. The river is dry. Although Enqueri tells me that it will flow again in a day or two, the fish have gone, and it will take time before they return in numbers sufficient to be worth the catching. We need to find another home where there is a river with fish in it, as well as animals to hunt and plants to gather."
Qalluni raised his hand. "There are not many of you, and setting up another home will be hard. I offer you a home with the Chopec."
Stoddard glanced round, indicating to the members of his party that they should slip away. Leaving Qalluni talking to the Charapek, the five white folk moved together and walked a little way up the side of the nearly-dry river, stopping where their camp had been. "This is between Qalluni and the Charapek," he said as they settled down. "If they decide to accept his offer, we'll help them make the journey. If they choose to stay independent, we'll help them relocate wherever they choose to settle. But I think we need to stay out of things right now."
As they waited, he continued, "Blair, Fiona - you took the time to grab your backpacks, and I know it was because you - and you, Jim - kept survival gear in them. Did either of you have any of your research notes in your packs?"
Both nodded, and he grinned. "Ah, well, at least that means this last three months hasn't been a total failure. I can still do a book on it, but I won't be able to do a paper, because I lost my notes. I must be getting old - I just reacted without thinking when Jim said to move. Can either of you let me have a blank notebook?" When both nodded again, he went on, "Whatever they decide, I can get a paper out of the tribe's resettlement." He grinned a little ruefully. "I know, that sounds as if I'm not thinking of this as the tragedy it is for the Charapek, but speaking professionally, how many anthropologists get the opportunity to see a tribe moving? And it's not as if we won't help them make the move, whatever they decide. But if they accept Qalluni's offer it's going to expose them to so much that's new to them. I hope they have the strength to - well, survive the transition."
"The Chopec don't use much of the white man's culture," Jim reminded him. "If they do go there, it'll give them a gentler exposure than they might have if - for example - a logging company decided to fell here."
"I'm not sure whether to hope they do join with the Chopec or decide to remain independent," Stoddard admitted.
"I think they'll join the Chopec," Fiona said. "The women, at least, are well aware that their numbers have been dropping steadily for two or three generations, that today more children are being lost in the first weeks of pregnancy than were lost in their grandmothers' time. They know, even if the men do not, that fresh blood is needed if they are to survive, even as part of a bigger tribe. I know it's ultimately Apuna's decision, but if he's wise, he'll listen to what the women say as well as what the other men think, and give it deep consideration.
"I know that loses us, as anthropologists, insight into a simpler way of life, but I think the alternative is to have the tribe die out in another two or three generations.
"If this hadn't happened, I'd still have been aware of that, but it wouldn't have been ethical for me to do or say anything to try to change things."
Stoddard sighed. "Inbreeding is always a problem in these small, isolated groups," he agreed.
"I just hope, if they do go, the Chopec won't try to - well, exploit them," Neall said.
Blair chuckled. "Neall, if they do go, they'll be going with one big advantage, and I'm more than half sure that's why Qalluni offered them a home, though I doubt he'll admit it, unless maybe to the Chopec, in private, when he gets home." He glanced round the puzzled faces, and his grin broadened as he saw understanding dawning on Jim's. "They have a sentinel - well, a part sentinel. Since Jim left, the Chopec don't have one. As soon as they find out about Allacaya - and Akoya - they'll welcome the Charapek."
"You know, though, that's something that's been puzzling me a little," Jim said. "You know how I reacted when Alex Barnes came to Cascade; why aren't Allacaya and I reacting adversely to each other?"
Seeing Stoddard's puzzled expression, Blair explained quickly, ending with, "We thought it might be a territorial thing, but Jim's right - there's no sign of... well, competition here. It could be because Allacaya's only a part sentinel, or it could be his youth, or it could be that he's got the sentinel instincts - Alex only had the heightened senses, with no wish to use them to help others. Maybe it's because right from the start he looked on Jim as his teacher. It might even be because he already has a guide, has had one pretty well his whole life.
"I don't suppose we'll ever know for sure; Burton never mentioned competition between sentinels, though he never indicated having seen a tribe with two."
They fell silent. Blair got out a couple of notebooks, handed Stoddard one of them and a pencil, then opened his own and began writing.
The light was just beginning to fade when Qalluni appeared. "Are you coming back to the village for the night?" he asked.
Stoddard nodded. "If you've finished your discussion with the Charapek. Have they decided?"
"Yes. They will come, join with the Chopec. Both groups will benefit."
There were few preparations to make. The men had already replaced their bows and spears, although arrows were still in short supply and none had replaced their blowguns; it would be relatively easy for the group to live off the land as they went, especially since they would be slowed down by the youngest children, the lame elder and the heavily pregnant woman. It was Fiona's opinion that she would probably give birth before they reached Chopec land - however, as the anthropologists well knew, women in these tribes could give birth and be on their feet again inside the hour, ready and able to continue with their everyday work.
They set off early in the morning, following the dried-up river. The young men went first, Qalluni, Allacaya and Akoya with them, for they would hunt as they went, then the older men, then the women, who would gather plant food as they went. The four white men brought up the rear, ready to help if one of the younger children dropped back despite the slow pace of the journey. Travelling with the women, Fiona kept an eye on the pregnant one, aware that the tribe's matriarch was doing the same thing.
The hunters were successful, bringing down enough game to feed the group for fully three days. They stopped early enough to cook all the meat, knowing it would keep better and they could eat it cold on the next two days.
About noon on the second day of their march they reached a point where the dried-up river had joined another one. It was difficult to say which was the main river and which the tributary, for the two were - or had been - about the same size. The travellers crossed the dry river bed and carried on downstream. It was still relatively easy walking, for even here a lot of the smaller ground debris had been washed away, though the bigger debris was still in place.
About mid-afternoon, one of the older children came running back. "Enqueri, Enqueri! Oqllu's baby comes!"
"Is there a problem?" Jim asked
"No, but we are having to stop for the day."
"Of course. Has someone gone to stop the men?"
The women were not far ahead of them, and by the time they reached the group - Fiona and the matriarch Qero had disappeared into the forest with Oqllu - the other men were arriving too. They set up camp quickly, expertly weaving a rough lean-to using thin branches and leaves to give mother and newborn shelter from the afternoon rain, and one of the Charapek men lit a fire at the edge of the shelter. Blair watched, envying the skill that let the man find moss and twigs dry enough to start the fire in this ever-damp rain forest.
It was less than an hour before the three women reappeared, the young mother already carrying the baby on her back and apparently fully recovered from giving birth. Qero and Fiona settled Oqllu in the lean-to, and Fiona rejoined her companions.
"A fine daughter," she said, "though Oqllu was hoping for a son."
"Of course," Jim chuckled.
They set off again next morning, but they hadn't gone far before they saw four canoes coming upriver, one man in each. Jim studied the men paddling for a moment, then chuckled. "Chopec," he said. "From your village, Qalluni."
The party stopped, and as the first canoe drew level with them, Qalluni called out to the man paddling. Within moments the canoes had pulled in to land.
Explanations did not take long.
One of the canoes lent to Stoddard's party had been swept downstream far enough that the Chopec had found it. Although, as Qalluni had said, the flood hadn't affected the Chopec village, it was clear to the men that the canoe had not just drifted away; it was damaged; and so some of them had come to investigate.
There wasn't room in the canoes for everyone, and at first Stoddard suggested that the women and children, along with the lame elder, could go in them, Fiona to act as a liaison between Chopec and Charapek until the men arrived; but Blair intervened.
"Wait," he said. "I've got an idea. Something I saw once... Could we use the canoes as a foundation for rafts? Fasten them together in pairs, using long poles at the front and rear, then make a sort of lattice with slightly lighter poles for people to sit on. Two men in each canoe to paddle and steer. It wouldn't be comfortable, but if we traded off paddlers we could make quite good time."
"The shaman has good ideas," Qalluni said. "We should try it."
Two days later the two rafts reached the Chopec village.
Even before the Chopec were told about Allacaya, they agreed Qalluni had been right to offer the Charapek a home; but Blair was right, too, when he said they would welcome a sentinel with open arms.
The white men stayed for long enough to see the Charapek settled and beginning to adapt to, and accept as normal, Chopec ways, while, at least for the moment, retaining their own way of life. Stoddard at least suspected that inside a year they would be almost completely absorbed into the host tribe especially if, as seemed probable, the two groups intermarried.
After three or four weeks, Stoddard radioed for the helicopter to take his party back to Pucallpa.
When they returned to Lima, they contacted Sandoval, to tell him what had happened. He looked from one to the other after they had finished. "This explains something that has been puzzling me. There was another expedition that went into the Montana region a few weeks ago - an archaeological one; they said they were searching for Inca remains, although they were not planning on staying in the area more than two weeks. The helicopter pilot who went back for them returned to report them missing - they didn't make their rendezvous, although he stayed an extra twenty-four hours in case they had been delayed. There were four men in the party."
"I'd be surprised if they weren't the ones we saw," Jim said quietly.
"In that case, I will... lose... the report," Sandoval said quietly. "For yourselves - are you planning on organising any kind of expedition to investigate this ruin?"
Stoddard shook his head. "Obviously we'll be mentioning the destruction of the lake when we write up our papers on the trip, because we'll have to account for the river flooding, but we'll leave the exact location secret."
"We've discussed just how much we should say," Blair added. "My inclination is to say 'These men thought there might be treasure in the lake, but they found nothing', and say nothing about what happened to them."
Sandoval nodded. "As an educated man, interested in the history of my country, I regret the loss of that treasure from the Incan past; but I think you are correct. Let it lie there, along with the bodies of those who tried to take it. If an expedition to recover it were to be mounted soon, the bodies of these men would be found and it would then be my duty to accuse the Charapek of murder although they were only acting according to their laws; they would be unable to understand my laws."
The party broke up in the airport at Los Angeles, Stoddard to return to New York, the O'Donnells to head for Philadelphia, and Jim and Blair to return to Cascade.
"You'll let me see your paper before you submit it anywhere?" Stoddard asked Blair before heading off for his flight.
"Yes. Since we're going to have to tell some lies here, it's best if you check that we're all telling pretty well the same lie," Blair said.
It was two exhausted men who finally arrived back in Cascade, having travelled standby from Lima. A phone call from San Francisco had warned Simon when to expect them; they were more than happy to see him waiting for them.
"Luggage?" he asked.
Blair shook his head. "Just what we've got."
"You took more than that away with you."
"We lost it," Jim said.
As they got into his car, Simon said, "That didn't take as long as you expected." He couldn't hide the curiosity in his voice.
"Well, one or two things went wrong," Jim admitted.
"Like losing your luggage?"
"Among other things. We'll tell you later," Blair said. "At the moment, all we want to do is get home and catch some sleep."
"Was the trip worth it?" Simon asked.
"Oh, it was worth it," Jim said. "And while I remember, Captain Sandoval sends his regards. To Daryl, too."
"You saw Sandoval?"
"He made a point of being at the airport to meet us," Blair said, "and he came to see us off, too." He yawned. "And yes, it was well worth it - apart from coming back to the cold. God, the loft is going to be freezing!"
Simon chuckled. "Well, no. After you phoned me, I took a couple of hours off - got you in some basic groceries and took them to the loft, and put on the heating."
"Simon, you're an angel!" Blair exclaimed.
"And - " as he cast a thoughtful eye over them - "I don't expect to see either of you till Monday. You both look as if you haven't slept for days."
Jim grinned. "Oh, we've had some sleep," he said, "but the last two or three weeks have been pretty hectic, and coming back from Lima on standby, with two changes of plane... "
"What about the rest of your party?"
"We split up at LA, but they were going on on standby as well."
"Did they lose their luggage too?" Simon asked.
"Uh-huh," Blair said. "Two of them lost everything. We at least saved a little - though not clothes. Just what we were wearing. Man, you haven't lived till you see Jim wearing Chopec gear."
"And you aren't going to see Jim wearing Chopec gear," Jim growled.
"Chopec?" Simon asked, looking puzzled. "I thought the tribe you were visiting was the Charaback."
"Charapek," Blair chuckled. "Yes, but we ended up staying with the Chopec for a few days on our way home. By that time we were desperate for clean clothes. Even Chopec ones."
Simon pulled in to a parking space in front of the loft. "Okay, here you are. And remember, I don't want to see you till Monday."
"Yeah, Simon, thanks," Jim said. They watched Simon's car pull away. "Right, Chief - one last effort, and then bed."
"Not food?" Blair asked.
"Not unless you have more energy than I have," Jim told him. "I don't think I could stay awake long enough to eat."
Inside the loft, however, Jim made coffee while Blair showered and Blair made them each a sandwich while Jim showered. They ate and drank quickly, then headed for bed.
Jim fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. Blair lay awake for a minute or two savoring the comfort of his own bed, but he was too tired to stay awake for long.
As he fell asleep, his last conscious thought was that he would spend the next day making rough notes for the paper - or papers - he would write about the expedition.