The wavering, piercing shriek - an obscene mixture of terror and hopelessness - sliced through the thin, Andean air. Oh my God! I thought as I sat bolt upright, jolted out of some now-forgotten dream. What in God's name could that be? My mind half-numb with sleep and cold I fumbled with the thin and none-too-clean blankets in which I was tangled then swung my legs over the side of the miserable little wooden bed and drew on my thick, woolen trousers and shirt. I grabbed my gun belt and bolted through the door of the small stone house.
Once, over four hundred years ago, that little stone building had been the home of the hacienda's earliest lord and master. Then, a hundred or so years later, the founder's heirs had built a new, much larger casa señoril and this little stone structure was relegated to the role of guest house.
By the time I reached the narrow veranda, the cry had ascended another octave and then died away. Once again, the only sound was the whispery rasp of that cruel, maddening wind which never seemed to rest. The night was typical for the Andean highlands at this time of year. Dark and bitterly cold; warmed and illuminated only by the light of the diamond-hard stars. I crouched shivering behind the veranda's rude railing, the cold quickly penetrating my socks and coursing up my legs. All around, out there in the dark, lay endless miles of near-barren highlands surrounded by towering cliffs.
The cocked pistol was heavy in my hand as I searched the dark for the source of the horror. My heart continued to pound painfully and my lungs ached. The air seemed so meager that I doubted it was capable of supporting even an errant spirit, much rather a living being. What could possibly have made that sound? I asked myself. Certainly not the sheep! Some wild animal? A bird? I doubted it. To feel and express such boundless terror requires an awareness that is only possessed by humans.
Even after several minutes of intense searching I still saw nothing unusual; nothing that didn't belong. The hard, sharp shadows; the corrals; the casa senoril in which the manager now lived; the barns and other outbuildings; the vehicles; all were as they should be. All but that faint, red glow near the corral. There were really two of them. Two glowing red dots. Close together. Floating in the night. At first I thought they were the tail lights of an automobile or truck driving off into the distance. But they were too close. The generator coughed to life and the work lights snapped on. The dots disappeared. Where they had been I saw, or perhaps sensed, a shadow. It moved - rippled is probably a better word - then was absorbed into the surrounding darkness.
"Muchachos!" shouted Pablo, the hacienda's manager, as he strode rapidly out of the casa. "What the devil is going on out there?" It must have been Pablo who'd turned on the lights.
"I don't know, señor," lamented a muffled voice somewhere out in the night.
"Doña Martina!" bellowed the manager, somehow catching sight of me standing in the shadows on the veranda. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, Pablo, I'm all right," I replied, still blinded by the artificial lights. "What's happening?"
"Bandits! It must be those God-cursed bandits," he replied. "Where's Jorge?"
Jorge? The foreman? I had no idea where he might be and told Pablo so.
"Bueno!" was his only reply. "Anastasio!" he continued, shouting into the night as he walked toward me, "you find Jorge."
"Si, patron," replied a voice out of the darkness, one of the Indian shepherds.
"And the rest of you search all around the corral. I want to know what made that awful sound!"
"Si, señor," sang an invisible chorus.
Listening to Pablo, watching him respond to the situation, I was reminded, and not for the first time, of what a tough bastard he was. He was also a total pig. There'd been talk of his having abused the peons - the indios - but nothing had ever come of it. And even I, the daughter of one of the owners, had found it necessary once to threaten him with a pistol to keep him in line. The truth is, however, that you don't hire a whining mama's boys to manage a sheep ranch spread over fifty
thousand hectares of Cordilleran near-desert.
"Aqui esta," said a voice out of the darkness.
"What is it?" demanded Pablo, who was standing by my side now.
"Jorge, señor. It’s Jorge."
By now I'd managed to spot the speaker's shadowy figure, its arms waving, out near the corner of the corral. Pablo was already well on his way. I followed carefully in my stockinged feet, wishing with every step that I'd had the wits to slip my boots on. The pistol remained in my right hand.
It was Jorge, all right, and yet it wasn't. There was a body lying next to the rude fence of the corral but it was the body of a mummy. Hard, shriveled, dry to the touch. It could have lain there, bathed by the cold, dry wind, for four hundred years. Or four thousand, for that matter. And just below the rib cage, between the bottom rib and the pelvis, was a great, dark hole. It was as if all its internal organs had been sucked out by some immense beast.
I took a deep, shuddering breath. "This doesn't look like bandits to me."
"It's them, all right. They've come up with something new," he replied grimly.
Nervously I glanced up from the remains and out into the night. Were they still out there? How, and why, had they done this? The why was obvious: to terrorize us. But how? What reeking form of dark magic, had they mastered which allowed them to cause such terrible destruction?
"Come, señora," said Pablo in his gravelly voice, "let's get warm." He paused, following my glance out into the surrounding dark. "They've gone."
I looked down again at Jorge's mummy. Pablo was undoubtedly right. It was the work of the bandits. "Bueno," I finally replied. Much as I disliked Pablo's company there seemed little choice. I would spend what was left of the night drinking his coffee in the casa.
Holstering my pistol, I watched as two indios covered Jorge with a blanket."It's the Corregidor," I heard one indio whisper to the other as I turned to follow Pablo. "He's come."
"Yes," whispered the second, a note of excitement in his voice. "That’s who it is. It must be."
At the time, my mind was fully occupied with bandits. The exchange barely registered.
* * * * * *
Shortly after dawn, four Jeeps crammed with tired-looking troops arrived. They appeared suddenly on the crest of a low, rocky rise with the glow of the coming day behind them, roared down and across the naked, brown-gray earth then slammed to a stop in front of Pablo's quarters. "You reported trouble?" asked the young captain, who was clearly as tired as his men.
"Yes," replied Pablo. "They killed my foreman late last night. They did something I’ve never seen before to his body."
"Oh?" The captain suddenly appeared less tired.
Pablo led him to the mummy and uncovered it. At first the captain just stared. He was too exhausted, I suppose, from a bitterly cold night spent bouncing all over this Godforsaken land expecting an ambush with every new breath, to fully grasp what he was seeing. Then, using the toe of his boot, he gently turned the husk. "Was this really a person, like us," he finally said. "He was alive yesterday?"
"I swear it," replied Pablo.
The captain looked at me. "And you, señora? Did you see this ... man ... alive yesterday?"
"Yes," I answered, not surprised that the soldier was having so much trouble believing. "He was alive yesterday."
"Very well. What happened?"
Our accounts, Pablo's and mine, were brief. We were both awakened by an inhuman cry and ran out into the cold night. I also described the two burning red dots I’d seen. Pablo snorted at my description. He’d seen no red light, he said. I suggested that he hadn't seen them because he was busy turning on the lights. Pablo snorted again and said he hadn't seen them because they weren't there.
I could see the captain wasn’t sure whether to believe me or not. My temper flared. I wasn’t crazy and it hadn’t been an illusion. I had, in fact, seen those two red dots. The captain looked down again at the mummy and finally asked me to continue. I guess he decided to believe me.
When we finished, the captain sighed and looked again at what had been Jorge. "I don't know, " he finally said. "I've never seen anything like this before. I'll report it. I'll also increase the frequency of patrols in your area. There's nothing else I can do.
"I suppose I have to take this with me," he added after a long pause, clearly uncomfortable. "Otherwise, nobody will believe me. I hope it doesn't carry disease. "
Despite my own unease, I felt a twinge of sympathy for the soldier. He seemed well educated. Under other circumstances I might have wanted to know him better.
* * * * * *
"What now?" I asked Pablo as we watched the patrol race off into the harsh morning sun.
"We do our jobs, señora!" he snapped. "We’ll be more alert. We’ll kill the bandits before they kill us."
He was right, of course. And it was my job, as auditor for the syndicate that owned the hacienda, to examine the books, and the buildings, and the sheep and the land itself to insure that all was in order and all accounted for.
Yes, it's true that I'm quite young and that my father's a member of the syndicate and yes, his influence got me the job. But don't let that mislead you. As Pablo might have said, I know how to do my job and he who might be foolish enough to believe otherwise would wish he hadn't.
I spent the rest of the morning trying to reconcile and verify the hacienda's skimpy accounts. It was a battle. I struggled to match receipts with Pablo's nearly illegible journal entries but the memory of Jorge's horrible screams, and visions of the paper-like cinder that was once him, kept forcing their way into my thoughts.
What had happened was simply inconceivable, I told myself. Was it really bandits? Of course! It had to be bandits. Who else?
Altocampos Province, like the rest of The Republic, was in the midst of a long, dark period of violence. Some of it was simple, criminal banditry and some simple, bloody politics. Several guerrilla armies, not to mention that of The Republic, were sweeping back and forth across the high, harsh plains and valleys, raiding, destroying, terrorizing. And then there were the ancient vendettas, feuds between clans and hamlets, that have simmered and periodically exploded over the centuries. Greed, politics, revenge. Insanity. It was all mixed together and few could separate the strands but my rational side insisted that Jorge's death was an act of terrorism and not of banditry.
A chill passed over me as I glanced around the small guest house. Stone walls, almost as ancient as the Conquest of the New World. A dark, dry wooden fireplace mantle of equal age. One small, barred window. A dim, propane lamp. And shadows everywhere. Shadows more ancient than anything else. Was it possible, I wondered, that my rational side might be incapable of providing the answer to what had happened to Jorge?
I ate a quick lunch, alone fortunately, since Pablo was off attending to some matter or other. I then called for El Montañero, the stallion Pablo always reserved for my use. It was my duty to ride over the hacienda. It was my wish to get out, to get away from that dark house. A lone rider traversing the great expanses might well be a tempting target for any passing bandits or guerrillas but it wasn't them I was coming to fear. Jorge had died in the dark. I looked to the light for my protection.
A fast half hour ride took me to the crest of a rocky outcrop overlooking one of the swampy, stream-fed valleys which make the hacienda possible. I reined in El Montañero and gazed out over the narrow oasis, catching my own breath while the horse caught his. The sun was warm but the air was still cold. A carpet of dirty-brown sheep covered the pale green valley floor, the whole bisected by a sparkling ribbon of icy pewter. All around, the nevadas, the snow-covered peaks which supplied the thin stream of water below, reached toward the bright, cold sun.
The furious ride had done much to calm my nerves. The mystery of Jorge's death and instant mummification remained but my thoughts were no longer dominated by demons. There was a rational explanation and, in time, it would become clear.
Two indio shepherds, mounted on animals considerably less grand than mine, were stopped among the sheep. El Montañero and I headed down to join them, picking our way among the loose rock and sandy soil of the valley wall. The indios, who were dressed in ragged and stained wool pants, sweaters and what could only have been the cast-off jackets of business suits, watched as we approached. I greeted them and asked how they and the sheep were. They answered hesitantly, as the peons often do. They were clearly fearful that they might get themselves in trouble somehow. As they mumbled, their eyes wandered all over. I recognized one as the fellow who’d helped cover Jorge's body. "It's the Corregidor." The phrase flashed into my mind. This was this indio who’d uttered it.
"Hombre," I said, turning to him, "last night you said something about 'the corregidor'. What did you mean by that?"
"The Corregidor Rodriguez, doña," he replied, smiling to himself with some sort of secret satisfaction.
"Who is the Corregidor Rodriguez," I started to say, catching myself as a distant memory came to life. He was, I faintly remembered, a minor historical figure from our colonial era. One of the steady stream of administrators, magistrates and special prosecutors sent by the Spanish Crown in a near-futile effort to maintain royal control over its New World colonies. Many, if not most, of these corregidores, auditores and fisicales took one look at the fabulous wealth to be had in the New World and immediately joined with the Creoles, the very same powerful, Spanish-blooded colonials they were sent to discipline. Others tried, with varying degrees of success, to carry out their duties, to enforce the Crown's almost infinite variety of unpopular laws covering everything from taxes to the humane treatment of the indios. A not-surprising number of these more diligent magistrates died after short tenure. For which was Rodriguez remembered? Virtue or infamy? I couldn’t remember.
"What about him?" I demanded.
Neither would reply. They just sat, in silence, looking around the horizon, exchanging
occasional words in Quecha, the language spoken by most of the Andean peoples, and smiling that infuriatingly private smile. Even after four hundred years, I thought in frustration, we’re no more to these people than the latest band of conquerors.
Unable to learn any more from the two peons, I spent the rest of the afternoon to pounding over limitless expanses of rock and hard scrabble: up and along naked ridges; down into countless barren arroyos. At times I challenged the wind. At times I let it carry El Montañero and me forward. My God how I drove that stallion ... and myself! All the while I told myself I was continuing my inspection of the hacienda. In truth, I was struggling with the mystery of Jorge and the Corregidor Rodriguez. And with my fears.
That night Pablo and I shared an uneasy dinner, surrounded on all sides by the intense dark of the high mountains, I asked him what he knew about Rodriguez. His face darkened and his eyes burned with rage as he replied, spitting every word: "Don't listen to that garbage! Pay no attention and never mention it again! If you listen to those simple fools you'll end up believing that every act of banditry or terrorism is the work of Rodriguez' ghost."
I opened my mouth to rebuke him for addressing me as he had, then closed it again. Pablo, as I've already mentioned, was a very rough fellow with an equally rough temper, especially after he'd swilled a half bottle of aquardiente. That night, however, I realized his rage contained an element I'd never before seen in him. Fear.
It was now clear that duty required me to find a logical solution to the mystery. So long as it remained, the hacienda's true condition remained indeterminate. It was equally clear I'd have to do it on my own. Pablo was, in every respect, an unfit collaborator. I returned to my quarters immediately after dinner and went to bed. Unable to sleep, I wrestled with the mystery and with my own fears.
And then it came to me! Don Artemio Rodriguez y Ayala! Said to be an honest official, although that was not what had gotten him into the history books. He was remembered because he had disappeared one night. Simply vanished. Right here, in Altocampos Province. It was said he'd been abducted and murdered by los indios; that his death was the first act of province-wide indio insurrection. No meaningful evidence was ever presented but many indios had been put to death.
There was an awful irony to it, I thought. If Don Artemio was, indeed, an honest official, then he'd probably tried to enforce the decrees against the abuse of the indios. Yet it was these same indios who were condemned for his disappearance!
I sat up slowly, torn between numbing fear and intense curiosity. What had Jorge done to merit the Corregidor's revenge, if, indeed, that is what had happened to him? Was the indio's confidence in the Corregidor justified? What exactly had happened to Don Artemio so many, many years ago? It was my duty to find out!
I wanted to meet Don Artemio, which was, of course, impossible. Unless the indios were right. I wanted to talk to him. At the same time, the fear of becoming a husk like Jorge, made me sick to my stomach.
I swallowed hard and dressed carefully, certain that this would be the last time I’d ever perform the ceremony. I then stepped out into the quiet, bitterly crystalline night. My pistol, clearly useless, remained on the desk. Where, I wondered, should I go to find him? The corner of the corral, where Jorge had found him? Where better to start?
I spotted those two vengeful red eyes, I now realized that is what they were, even before I reached the site of Jorge's metamorphosis. I walked toward them, my stomach twisting and my fists clenched at my sides. Within what could only have been a few seconds I felt the Corregidor's intensely cold, odorless breath. A mantle of absolute darkness enveloped me. I was overwhelmed by a terror I tried to convince myself I had no reason to feel. I tensed, prepared for the excruciating pain Jorge must have suffered. Dear God! I thought. I've made a horrible mistake and now it's too late. I opened my mouth, ready to scream at the first twinge.
No sound ever left my mouth. Before I could force the air out of my lungs a soothing certainty that I was not to suffer, at least not just then, settled over me. Then I felt a sense of surprise, almost shock. But the feeling didn't belong to me. It was somebody else's. It had to have been Don Artemio's. It was as if the Corregidor were momentarily taken aback by my being a woman. I took a deep, shuddering breath. I could only guess that I'd merged in some way with the spirit and memories of Don Artemio.
The darkness around me evaporated and it was mid-day. I could see the hacienda's indios
standing, staring vacantly as Jorge, red-faced and screaming in fury, beat one of their number with a short whip. Off to one side stood Pablo, his shotgun pointed at the sad, sullen audience. As I watched, I somehow understood that the dispute was over pay; that Pablo and Jorge had been cheating the indios, paying them less than half of what the owners were providing.
Suddenly, the scene changed. I was sitting at a small desk in a dimly lit room. The room itself had walls of stone and a massive wooden mantle over the empty fireplace. On the desk before me was a burning candle and a document which I was writing. The room was cold and my fingers were stiff. I was bone tired but an intense mixture of fear and fury was keeping me awake and alert. I then realized that the room I was seeing was the same room in which I, Martina, had been sleeping and working during the past few days.
There was a knock on the door and a bolt of renewed fear shot through my chest. Along with the fear came a swelling sense of outrage. I rose from the desk, walked to the door and opened it. Standing before me was Carlos Torrenegro, the young officer I'd brought from Spain to command my personal guard.
"You must come with me, señor."
As he spoke, I saw in his eyes the betrayal that I'd both feared and suspected. He too had fallen to the temptations of the New World and had cast his lot with the Creoles.
"Of what will I be charged?" I asked, knowing I'd never live to stand trial.
"The usual, Don Artemio. Usurpation. Abuse of power. Or you may just fall off the side of a mountain."
A long, dark ride into the mountains followed. Along the narrowest of tracks through sleety rain and snow and howling winds. "Enough!" I finally said to Torrenegro. By now, my clothing was soaked through and stiffening from the forming ice and my patience was running out. "I’m cold and tired. Let it end here."
"As you wish, señor," replied the faithless captain of my personal guard. Without another word I dismounted and walked stiffly to the edge of what appeared to be a sharp precipice.
Whatever his moral failings, Torrenegro's thrust was clean and true. There was a brief moment of sharp, all-consuming pain, then nothing. Both Don Artemio and I seemed to stand aside as we watched the Corregidor's body crumple and then tumble down into the icy darkness far below. It was clear to me that even in those last moments Don Artemio had felt no despair. Fatigue and disappointment, yes. Great fear, yes. But no despair. Right to the very end of his mortal life, he'd been as loyal to his God as he was to his king.
The shroud lifted from around me. Once again I could see the stars and the outlines of the hacienda's buildings. Exhausted, I lay on the cold, hard ground. The Corregidor's two eyes, seeming to burn now even more fiercely than before, hovered a moment as if studying me. They then raced away into the night, headed toward the casa señoril.
The next day, all that could be found of Pablo was a brown husk.
* * * * *
I returned to the capital, where the featureless, modern high rises jostle uncomfortably with the ornate, crumbling cathedrals and palaces of the distant past. When I finished my report to the assembled owners of the hacienda, there was near silence in the room. My father and one or two others mumbled "My God!" or "Martina! How can this be?" and several clearly didn't believe a word of it. The rest simply didn't seem to know what to believe or say.
Finally, young Torrenegro y Cortina, he's a direct descendent of Carlos Torrenegro and is destined, I understand, to become a Minister of State in the near future, spoke: "It is interesting, don't you think, that they were just as willing to work for what they were receiving as for what they were supposed to receive ..."