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Monday, November 7, 2011

Hijacked Prologue

Western North America 1790 at Moon Lake
Strong cords bound the thief’s arms and legs. He was naked and his skin burned from the lashes of Eduardo’s whip. Benito and Eduardo carried the thief by his upper arms. His feet dragged behind on the rocky ground. The Thief thrashed and croaked a screamed, but Benito and Eduardo’s held fast and continued to march up the trail through the pine trees towards the meadow. The thief’s legs scraped over the jagged rocks that littered the trail. Blood from his bruised feet mixed with the muddy sweat that streamed down his dark bronze skin, dripped onto the ground.  
Conrado stood in the middle of the small meadow and watched the thief struggle. Completely annoying. His brain moaned. His temper flared as he continued to watch the procession. The blood in his veins pounded harder with each pathetic squeak the thief gave. Conrado closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and willed for more patience.
Yes annoying was the best word for it—or perhaps pathetic. How long since I demonstrated the punishment for stealing? Just two days ago and the thief screams likes child.
Conrado opened his black eyes, scratched at his black beard, and glared across the small clearing. Benito and Eduardo stopped just inside the meadow. They were out of breath. The mountainside’s steep slope was difficult enough without dragging an insolent thief.
Performance time. Conrado straightened his back. Automatically his left hand pushed the sword strapped to his waist down straight and ran his right hand over the two flintlock pistols stuffed in his leather belt. He glanced behind himself where his men stood holding at sword point the forty-eight slaves Conrado ordered gathered here to witness this thief’s fair trial and punishment. The men weren’t enthusiastic about this order. The smell from the slaves, some barely alive—as if walking rotting carcasses—was almost unbearable.
Conrado allowed his eyes to roam over the slaves and read their emotions. Fear filled their muddy faces. At the center, his eyes stopped on a young boy maybe ten years of age with dark-brown eyes partly hidden by his long straight black hair. He did have some spark of anger, but it died the moment he caught Conrado’s gaze. No, nothing—complete resignation to their fate.  Perfect.
“Why are you so cruel?” The thief cried in his native language.
Conrado slowly turned back to the thief. Cruel? No, it’s just efficiency.
Benito and Eduardo continued to restrain the thief—not that the thief could do much, bound such as he was.
Benito stood up straight with his sword neatly fastened to his side. He presented himself to Conrado as if he was a lawyer in the king’s court and forced the words through his dark overgrown mustache.
            “Conrado, I found this man stealing from the king’s mine—verified by eight witnesses.”
The thief’s whole body shook. “Please… Be merciful… Please, I’m sorry for taking mines food.”
Conrado couldn’t help smiling and he noticed Benito smiling as well.
“He has confessed Conrado.” Benito yelled. “His own words prove his guilt.”
Perfect, the other tribes won’t dispute the man’s crime.
            A passing cloud cast its shadow across the clearing, indicating another one of the region’s rapid weather changes was coming on.
Benito left the thief with Eduardo and walked across the meadow to collect his four trained wolves tethered to a great pine tree. Seeing Benito, the wolves leaped to their feet wagging their tails like little puppies wanting to play. Benito’s talent in training canines was unparalleled in Europe. However, talent didn’t explain what Benito had achieved here. When Conrado asked about the amazing control, Benito just shrugged. “I can hear their thoughts in this valley and they can hear mine.” Conrado didn’t doubt it, but he didn’t want anyone else knowing. He didn’t need his men panicking over the possibility of witchcraft.
“Oh, you’re so excited my beautiful puppies. Calm down, calm down—you will get your chance.”
Talking to them like adorable children again. Conrado growled in his head. More like children of the deviland like the devil, they served a similar purpose. With those beasts prowling around the camp perimeter, nothing enters or leaves the camp without Benito’s permission.
Muddy sweat streamed from the thief’s straight black hair and trickled down his bronze sun-weathered skin. His trembling escalated. The wolves jumped and growled with more enthusiasm at the sound of the thief’s whimpering and saliva flowed freely from their jaws. Benito began humming a low rumble in his throat. The wolves froze in place and growled back a similar tune to Benito. Their bloodthirsty eyes zoned in on the target.
Eduardo withdrew his dagger and cut through the cords that bound the thief’s feet and then wove the razor sharp blade through the cords that bound the thief’s arms. Conrado signaled, and Eduardo slashed through the cords to set the thief free.
The thief darted across the meadow, jumped over a fallen log, and ran down the steep mountainside toward the crescent moon shaped lake.
Conrado counted to ten, and signaled Benito who released the wolves and blew into the carved-wood whistle tied around his neck. The whistle’s pitch was high and barely audible to humans, but the wolves heard it just fine and took off for the kill.
The thief tripped over a fallen tree, tumbled down the mountainside out of sight. The wolves followed. Their giant paws silently accelerated their massive black frames—as if ghosts—across the pine needle infested forest floor.
Silence blanketed the forest as if falling snow. Then the thief’s screams tore through the towering pine trees followed by growls and snarling.
The slave’s heads drooped lower. A woman wept, turned her head toward Conrado’s glare and then turned away and muffled her own cries. He had made his point.
“Back to work!” Conrado yelled.
His men forced the slaves back toward the mine and up the scaffolding ladder to the mine’s entrance. Several slaves slipped on the scaffolding’s worn timbers.
Conrado trudged up the rocky trail away from the clearing. Benito stepped into pace beside him.
“Scaffolding.” Conrado growled.
“What’s that Conrado?”
Conrado hadn’t meant to speak aloud. He glanced at Benito out of the corner of his eye.
“—just another curse Benito—another curse making this project treacherous. But, that’s the nature of gold, it exists where it exists. Fate put that gold vein up on that cliff. Scaffolding is the only reasonable means to reach it.”
Benito’s dark bushy mustache hid his smile, but the creases around Benito’s eyes let Conroado sense the smirk. Conrado braced himself for the inevitable—Benito’s positive outlook.
“There’s an advantage to the scaffolding. If we need to leave the area, we can remove the scaffolding and no one will find the mine—an effective technique for our winter exodus.”
A furry rodent with a bushy tail raced from the safety of one pine tree, crossed the trail in front of them, and scurried into another tree.
Benito coughed. “Conrado, What about King Charles?”
“What about Oh Blessed King Charles the Fourth?”
“Have we mined enough gold to satisfy his investment?”
“Not yet, but at our current rate, soon. We can increase ours and the men’s take after that.”
It had better be soon. Conrado growled in his head. King Charles will remove my head if we returned without a profit and day-by-day death creeps closer to us here. This indigenous population outnumbers us a hundred to one. It’s a fine line we tread.
Benito glanced at Conrado out of the corner of his eye. “We can always exploit one of the other tribes. There must be other gold veins in this area.”
“You think so?” Conrado replied in mocking tone. Benito never was good at tactics. “You’re good at reading the natives’ moods Benito. How happy are they about us being here? –And of course they aren’t disturbed about us enslaving one of their so called brother tribes.”
Benito dropped his gaze to the ground and grimaced.
“Benito, the only reason the other tribes don’t unite and wipe us out is they know the number of men lost in the battle will be greater than the number we have enslaved. The moment we move against another tribe our fine line of protection ends. We become an invading army set on picking off the tribes one by one. We will have less than a month before the various tribes unite and wipe us out.”
Benito nodded in agreement and worry-lines deepened across his forehead.
“Benito, if this vein doesn’t pay, the only gold we will be mining around here is what we find and dig out ourselves.”
“With so much at stake, was it wise to execute the thief?” Benito asked
Conrado laughed. “The insolent fool’s theft was a welcome gift. He presented us an opportunity to show strength and will to inflict punishment. We will make sure the other tribes know he was a thief. That will calm their arrows. Our message will be as strong though. They will know not to confront us.”
            The next three days proved productive, and the impact of the thief’s death was still visible in the workers’ faces. The execution now imprinted forever in their minds.
            “Conrado! Conrado!” Benito yelled as he ran up the rocky path. “Conrado! We have broken through into a large cavern and the gold vein has ended.”
            No! It couldn’t be.
Conrado’s brow furrowed with the increased stress. They mined a fair amount of gold—not enough to justify the King’s expense. Then there was the complication of the men. Well trained, yes, but they weren’t here out of loyalty to the crown, they were here out of loyalty to gold.
The amber light from the sunset retreated across the sky and shadows from the towering pines stretched farther across the camp. Set at the center of the camp a large fire raged with five skewered rabbits roasting. The cook scurried about and tried not to trip over the outstretched feet. The only man standing was Alehandro who paced back and forth in his seal skinned boots, his hands folded behind is back. Alehandro spoke animatedly and his long black hair jerked side to side with each word he uttered.
“If the gold vein extended to the cavern then there must be a vein higher up inside the cavern. There well could be a more prosperous vein yet waiting for us.”
Not a bad tactic for such an arrogant windbag. Conrado thought.
Conrado shifted his weight. The log he was sitting on was growing uncomfortable.
Alehandro is trying to raise confidence on the prospect of more gold. He’s planning to take control or at least hoping for the opportunity. Of course, as usual his plan is flawed .His knowledge of mining is almost zero and when there isn’t another vein and he doesn’t have the answers… Well, it won’t be the rabbits roasting on the fire.  
Conrado closed his eyes and forced his temper back into its dark corner.
Now isn’t the time for outburst.
The only real solution was for him to survey the mine and this new cavern.
I just need some time, tactics, and planning to keep Alehandro in his place during my absence.
            The growls and barks of the patrolling wolves and the screams of men echoed into the camp.
Conrado lurched to his feet and grabbed his musket. He ran forward, bumped into Alehandro’s shoulder, knocking him back almost into the fire, then ran past.
“Your dissertations over!” Conrado yelled and race down the steep trail towards the mine entrance.
Conrado could hear the light-footed feet of Benito racing behind him. Farther back up the hill the rest of his so-called generals pursuing.
Conrado rounded the large granite cliff. The tactical portion of his brain expected his men to be clenched in battle with the slaves or one of the tribes. That wasn’t the case. His men were scattering, racing away from the mine, and screaming like children. The slaves left unguarded. Complete chaos ruled. Rage blinded Conrado’s thinking—crimson rage as if his eyes were filled with blood—that his men would act so undisciplined.
An invisible force hoisted one man six feet into the air and threw him against the granite cliff.
 Conrado retreated several steps trying to give himself more time to decide a course of action. His intellect frantically tried to anchor itself to the situation.
Several feet in front of Conrado, two men collapsed into the dirt—flattened—as if an invisible boulder had fallen off the mountain. For the first time in his adult life, Conrado felt fear enter his frame. What had they encountered?
Could demons from hell have been unleashed upon us?
The growling of one the wolves turned to yelps of pain and then it hurtled overhead into the towering pine trees. The dog’s body smashed through the upper branches and came to rest with a loud thud against a lower branch. Its body lay limp over the thick limb like a damp cloth.
Closer to the cliff, the unseen demon hoisted Eduardo into the air and began to climb the scaffolds to the mine entrance. The scaffolding swayed under its weight.
Imagining a demonic form grasping Eduardo, Conrado raised his musket and aimed below the screaming Eduardo’s feet. Conrado pulled the trigger and the musket roared. Smoke exploded from the barrel. The sulfur from the black powder burned at the inside of his nostrils.
The slug hit its mark. The invisible creature let go and Eduardo fell the long twenty feet to the ground. A second later, the unseen creature must have fallen as well because something smashed through several scaffolds.
            “Run!” Conrado yelled to the men closest to the cliff—too late. The scaffolding swayed, its timbers groaned, and then it collapsed in a cloud of dust.
Conrado ran forward into the dust pulling Benito, who still had a loaded musket. Conrado hoped the dust would make the creature visible, but was disappointed.
            In the background, Conrado heard the slaves yelling as they ran down the mountain trail. The growls and barks of the remaining wolves echoed off the cliff as they chased the fleeing slaves into the forest—not that it mattered. The gold vein had run out and the men stood frozen in terror—all intelligent thought driven from their minds.
Conrado clenched his teeth in anger.
            “I want a perimeter formed around the base of this cliff! Nothing gets in or out of this area.”
The men gathered their wits at the sound of Conrado’s voice and formed a half circle with their swords pointed outward and their backs to the cliff.
“Silence! No one makes a sound. Don’t even shuffle your feet.”
Conrado, cocked his head to the side and stretched his hearing out as far as possible. For several seconds, his ears found nothing. Then a twig snapped to the left, maybe eight paces away. Conrado didn’t turn to look. He was better trained than that. He would play ignorant of the demon’s presence until the last second.
Conrado took hold of Benito’s musket. Benito released it reluctantly. Slowly, without looking in the creature’s direction, Conrado pulled back the musket’s hammer and waited for the demon to take one-step closer. Conrado’s nerves tightened as he waited for the one faulty sound. It came from small pebbles scraping on the ground.
Conrado spun to his left and raised the musket. The creature picked up a scaffold timber and launched it at Conrado’s body. Conrado’s finger pulled the trigger—black smoke thundered from the barrel and obscured the timber from his view just as it collided with his shoulder and head.
Conrado awoke to silence and darkness. His faculties took several minutes to comprehend—nighttime. He glanced around, trying to move as little as possible, not knowing the enemy’s location. A wet cloth was wrapped around his head. He assumed the moisture was his own blood. A coarse horse blanket lay over his painfully cold body. Conrado broadened his visual scan. Someone had moved him closer to the cliff. Looking left, his eyes found Benito pacing a few feet away and beyond him, the men holding the perimeter.
“Benito.” Conrado whispered.
Benito stopped pacing and came over.
“Benito, where’s the demon.”
 “Your shot knocked it to the ground.” Benito explained. “The creature seemed unconscious. We were able to feel it even though it was invisible. Its injuries seemed to have been a ruse. A moment later, it lurched to its feet, killed two men and dragged a third into the forest. Our goal now is to hold this line until morning, then, if you agree, regroup in a safer location.”
 Conrado’s head throbbed with pain as he nodded his approval.
Tomorrow was too late.
Heavy silence blanketed the forest, then the attack—not from one demon, but many. Screaming reverberated off the cliff. Conrado found himself without the strength to sit up let alone fight. All he could do was watch the slaughter. Benito was kneeling on the ground, reloading his musket, and yelling orders to the men.
“On the right—reload. Left Fire.”
That was Benito’s last words before a demon smashed him to the ground and hauled him into the forest. At the far end of the cliff, three men cried in agony as demons tore their limbs off as if pulling petals from daisies.
Conrado knew King Charles would send a group to find them when they didn’t return, but the local people would hide all signs of mining in an effort to divert other fortune seekers. Padre Marcos—located several hundred miles from here—possessed a crude map of the location, and Conrado only needed to leave a mark indicating the mine was just above him on the cliff.
While the slaughter continued, Conrado removed his knife and carved a cross into the base of the cliff. With the last of his strength he smeared mud over the cross, knowing that future rainstorms would eventually wash it off. It would hide the mark long enough to conceal it from his enemies. Task completed, Conrado pulled his arm to his side and closed his eyes. He felt his spirit begin to slip away.  A vision of the future briefly opened to Conrado’s mind as if heaven’s final joke. It wouldn’t be Padre Marcos and the armies of King Charles that found his cross. They would never come. They would never learn the secrets of the invisible demons. Rather the vision raced forward in time over two hundred years. A young man was kneeling at the cliff and running his hand over the cross. His name was Alex.

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