Friday, June 27, 2014


would you recognize
the wreck that writes
these feeble words
with goose quill

so gray and grim
worn and wracked
by time’s passing
like a stone
washed by wanton waves

I think not

turn away from this husk
and wait
for its coming ghost
to gift you with its bequest

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Chapter Five of Gottesland

FEET FIRST and unconscious, he sliced the water and sunk slowly into the depths of the mere that formed at the base of the range of hills in the northern region of Puebla.
The mere was deep; formed ages ago by the eruption of the now dormant volcano above it. Its bottom hollowed out from pitted volcanic rock added a dank darkness that enveloped him.
Touching the bottom, he burped a bubble of air, the last in his lungs, and then awoke. Panic filled his mind as he struggled for a way up. And then a tiny fish with large teeth bit his cheek and his panic evaporated, as the demon’s voice emerged from the fish’s toothy mouth. ‘No air, no sound,’ he thought but he understood the voice in his head anyway.
Do not swim to the surface. Death awaits you there,” said the fish. “Follow me if you want to live.”
The fish swam off toward the west and traversed the fall’s foam and bubbles to a hole in the wall of the mere and he followed, gasping for air but refusing to panic. The hole was the opening of a tunnel that led upward into a cave above the water line. He was saved.
He pulled himself out of the water and struggled onto a rugged shelf of volcanic stone. A opening thirty feet above his head allowed enough light to partially illuminate the cave’s surface.
Out of the water and now safe, he began to shiver from the cold. His whole body vibrated and his teeth clacked together. Shuddering and wracked with chill he stripped off his clothes and circled the floor, waving his arms and lifting his legs high to provide some warmth to his body.
As he moved he began to curse the demon, the Black Robes that shot him, Birgit, who abandoned him, and God, in particular.
“What the Hell am I doing here?” he shouted and then stopped and looked up at the opening in the stone. “Idiot,” he sputtered to himself, realizing they might hear him having his temper tantrum. “Am I the biggest fool, who ever lived?” he said, sitting down on a stone. Then, he felt the pain in his shoulder. In the shock of the fall and then cold water he had been numb to the pain but now he felt it and he shuddered anew. Touching the wound he examined the fresh blood on his fingers. “Jesus,” he almost cried, “I will bleed to death in this hole and no one will ever find me.”
Your father found himself in a similar predicament,” said a large white moth, emitting a white soft light, as it fluttered down from the hole above his head.
Stern sat on the rock and wrapped his arms around his chest and said, “I know little or nothing about my father.”
The moth fluttered and the demon spoke through him. “The citizens of Camaron sentenced him to death by starvation and exposure. They then threw him into an abandoned well and left him to die.”
Stern imagined he was hallucinating but he was curious about his father so he asked: “Did he die there?”
The moth landed on his knee and slowly waved its wings. Others descended into the room and a larger one came to rest on his hand and said, “He was saved by the god, Coyote. Do you know him?”
“The trickster god of the indios, right?” he sputtered.
The moth on his hand did not answer but another one lighting on his foot said, “That’s right; Coyote saved him with his own rope. He pulled him out of the well but that is only the beginning of the story.
Stern felt light-headed now and lay down on the stone.  “I will be dead soon,” he thought.
Another moth landed on his head and said, “Your father was wounded just as you are now and then he died. But the lunar bruja brought him back.”
He lifted his head enough to see the whole floor of the cave was covered with the white moths. He licked his lips and then crawled to the edge of the cavern’s floor and drank water from the mere.
“He died?” he said to the moths and they answered: “The lunar bruja brought him back and sent him to Okeanus.
He did not have the strength to crawl back to the rock; instead, he passed out where he lay; his long blue-black hair floating gently in the water with the sharp-teethed fish nibbling at the hairs, biting off the ends.
He dreamed of Coyote, who asked him if he knew the story of the Elk monster. “No,” he said, sitting cross-legged next to a feeble fire fueled by Oryx dung. “Oh, you will love this one,” Coyote said, rubbing his hands together, before he began the tale. “If you pay close attention you may find a way out of this cave,” he said with a wink. “I had just died and been re-born for perhaps the thousandth time when I awoke on the yellow stalk grass of the Dakota prairie, hungry and horny. ‘Where is Mole woman?’ I asked with a stretch and yawn.
As Coyote told the tale in the dream, he acted out the actions. Stern smiled, pleased with the trickster’s performance.
“I hallooed out through cupped hands, like this,” he said and then hallooed. “Mole woman come feed me and then hump me.” The Coyote laughed at this; he had tickled himself with his vulgar expression. But vulgarity was one of his major powers.
“I heard a rumbling and the prairie shook, as Mole Woman tunneled toward me. She was coming from the south, from the Commancheria, in a great hurry because she longed to see her mate, the god Coyote.
“Finally, she arrived and popped her head from her tunnel beneath the prairie. ‘Coyote, I am here,’ she whispered and I laughed in happiness to see Mole woman.
“She was quite small and I had to struggle to enter her tight entrance to the underground but I was hungry and a great lust was on me so I forced myself inside.”
“Mole woman was assiduous and her tunnel was smooth and clean. She fed me tortillas and beans and then we mated; our love-making was long and furious. Afterwards, we slept wrapped in each other’s arms in a snug burrow she had carved from the tunnel.
“Badger woke us days later with a tale of Elk monster rampaging hills north of us and I thought it fortuitous that he had come because I was ready for a good fight. I rubbed my hands together and told Mole woman to find Elk monster. She smiled and began digging.
“We tracked down Elk monster and found him fighting Grizzly Bear on the side of a mountain stream. Grizzly Bear had been fishing and Elk monster wanted to take away his fish.
“When we were beneath them I popped out of the tunnel and hallooed for the two to stop fighting. Shocked by my sudden appearance they did.
“Elk monster asked: ‘Coyote how did you get here?’
“I answered: ‘I walked across the prairie. Didn’t you see me? Have you grown so feeble and blind you didn’t see old Coyote walk up to you?’
“Elk monster was confused and Grizzly Bear used the diversion to escape into the woods.
“Mole woman appeared in the distance as I instructed her and I said, ‘Look yonder, people are gathering to attack us.
“Elk monster squinted and said, ‘let’s get them.’
“He swung his shield onto his back and picked up his bow and spear and we set off toward Badger woman.
“A little ways down the hill, Elk monster fell into a hold dug by Mole woman and he couldn’t climb out. I said, “Hand me your weapons and I will help you out.’
“Stupidly, he passed up his spear, his shield, and his bow. And, of course, I took his spear and stabbed him through his left eye and into his brain. We stripped him of all his possessions and Mole woman covered up the hole.”
Stern awoke from the dream, shocked by the sudden violence , and rolled over onto his stomach and crawled away from the edge of the water. He raised himself on his hands and knees and vomited, spewing the vile liquid across the floor, which caused thousands of moths to flutter upward.
His body was feverish and he shook from chills. He sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees, which he brought close to his chest. ‘Where had that dream come from?” he asked himself. “Was there any help contained in the story?’
The light from the opening far above his head dimmed and he realized that the day had almost passed.
His clothes were still damp but almost dry. He pulled them on, hoping they would provide some warmth. His wound no longer bled.
A moth said, “Remember Coyote.” Then all of the moths rose and flew through the opening in the cavern’s ceiling into the darkening night, leaving the cave pitch-black. He could no longer see his hand.
He sat in the darkness, shivering with fever and thinking about everything that happened to him since the attack in his room. Hours passed as he remembered every detail, wondering how he could have avoided this mayhem. Many times he simply shrugged his shoulders and accepted that he might be insane.
He fell asleep and then he awoke to a movement from the water. Above him, first light of dawn illuminated the mouth of the hole; just enough to allow him to see forms and shapes in the cave.
Water erupted and spray doused him, as a pregnant blue-back dragon rose from the water and climbed the rocks of the cave’s ledge.
Although weak, Stern jumped back and edged toward the far side of the cave. It became obvious to him through some unknown sense that although the dragon was aware of him, she did not intend attacking him. He knew this by the way the yellowish light emanating from her eyes softened. He relaxed and leaned against the wall of the cave and waited to see what she would do.
The pregnancy weighed the beast down and she had trouble moving on the rough stones, her stomach large and distended. Stern guessed she was about to birth her offspring and he did not want to be around when that happened.
The dragon waddled to the center of the cave and lay down, wrapped her body into a circle with her long barbed tail touching her nose and fell asleep. Stern, although hurt and weak, edged around the cave toward the water. He decided he should try to swim to the surface of the mere; a daunting feat for a man in his condition but better, he thought, than being roasted by dragon fire.
Almost to the water’s edge, he paused when he became aware the dragon was watching him. He took one more step and the dragon sprayed a line of liquid fire across the floor, blocking his way to the water. He moved back to his place against the wall and the dragon closed her eyes and fell back into sleep.
Something was definitely up, he thought. The dragon did not seem menacing but she also was not going to allow him to leave her lair.
A moth fluttered down from the hole above and landed on the floor near him. “Think,” the moth said. “What aligns you with the dragon?”
Supposedly, he thought, his father was on a mission for the Black Robes to discover the source of the dragons. But that was apocryphal or so he always believed. The woman, Birgit, had fed him an elixir called dragon skin but that, too, was certainly metaphorical. Or was it? Could the dragon believe he was one of her kind? When she sniffed him, did she smell dragon? Finally, it didn’t really matter what reason the dragon had for not eating him. He could not stay here much longer. Wounded and cold, he had to find help.
The moth lifted up and said, as it fluttered toward the hole in the roof, “Remember Coyote’s story.”
He scratched the stubble on his chin and thought about Coyote’s tale. Should he burrow his way out? Impossible, he laughed. Or should I find the entrance to yet another tunnel? And then he thought about his session in the library reading the Grimoire of Shadow and his entrance into the other realm.
He looked about him and found a small rough stone, which he used to open the wound on his shoulder. With the blood, he drew the magic diagram and closed his eyes as he remembered the letters and their place in the magical formula. When it was complete, he said the word, “Exigo,” and a timeless space, ein Bezirk, engulfed him.
He was in a cavern still but not the one under the falls. No dragon slept on the floor nor was the cave dark and dank; instead, torches illuminated the space and it was warm.  A tall, thin humanoid stood a few feet opposite him and he noted its strong aquiline features, its thin pale lips, its nose, shaped like a falcon’s beak, its eyes, almond-shaped and hazel in color and its pointed ears, very much like his own. The creature wore only a leather kilt with five or six golden bracelets on each arm and one on each ankle. Its bare skin was bone white.
Barefooted, it approached Stern; and, when it was only a foot or so away, it said, “I am Kokabiel and you are in a Bezirk of my making.”
“You are the voice in my head” said Stern, somewhat startled at seeing embodied the voice that had been helping him since he was twelve.
The demon bowed.
Stern walked about the room. There were neither walls nor windows. As far as he could tell it was as sealed container.
The demon waited patiently as he examined his surroundings and then said, when it seemed that Stern had exhausted his investigation, “I need your help, Asa.”
The boy turned to him and said, “What can I do for you?” he ran his hand nervously through his thick hair. “I am a helpless mess.”
The demon laughed and said with a smile, which revealed his pointed teeth and black tongue, “You are connected to the Grimoire of Shadow. In fact, on a magical level it is yours. Only you may handle it now.”
The boy was confused and said, “I don’t have it.” He paused before continuing. ‘I never had it. I read part of it but I left it in the library.”
Kokabiel nodded and said, “You didn’t read it in the library. You read it in a Bezirk, a magical space I created from a spell from the Grimoire of Thorns. I opened a space in a monastery library in a castle on an island in the world known as Okeanus and you opened it and read it there.”
Stern shook his head and confessed: “I didn’t understand a word you just said.”
The demon laughed dryly. “Magic is a combination of words and blood. Many times wizards, magicians, warlocks write spells down in books, known as grimoires, to protect the spells from disappearing. Demons never write things down but often we use magic that mortals concoct.” He waved his hand in front of him, palm down, and a chair appeared and the demon sat; he crossed his legs and said, “I am a great collector of magical books. However, from time to time one slips from my grasp. For instance, I once let a very valuable book escape me. I gave it to a mortal to achieve access to your world and now it is lost to me.”
“So what help do you want from me?” asked the boy, wishing that he, too, had a chair.
The demon read his thoughts and conjured up a chair for him.
“I want you to retrieve the Grimoire of Shadow and bring it to me in the Argantine,” he said.
“Why can’t you just go and pick it up?” asked the boy innocently.
The demon frowned and the room’s heat increased by a few degrees. The boy did not notice because everything about the encounter was so strange.
“I cannot enter a world without an invitation of an inhabitant of that world,” the demon said softly. “I am not here. I am projecting an image of myself into your space.”
The boy reached for the demon to test his statement and his hand passed through the image sitting on the chair in the center of the Bezirk.
“You see,” said the demon, “I am an image in your Bezirk.”
The boy thought for a few moments, playing the demon’s word in his mind. He had a sense the demon was telling him more than he was saying. His words were like a poem that needs him to perform an explication de texte to reveal its meaning. When he thought he found the points of obfuscation, he asked: “When you say it’s my space, what do you mean?”
The demon smiled, as if to support Stern’s request for clarification. “You created the space from your reading of the text of the Grimoire of Shadow and the application of your blood and your words; consequently, the power of the space is yours, not mine. In fact, I have no power here at all.”
“So how are you here?” said the boy, growing somewhat excited by the thought that he might be able to wield some sort of power.
“I have been privy to your mind since I gained access to this world through a promise I made to your father; a promise to keep you safe. Wherever you are, I can project an image or an ear to hear.”
“You have mentioned the promise before,” said the boy, wondering what circumstances caused his father to bargain with the demon. He was about to ask the question, when something told him not to ask. He did not know if the warning came from the demon himself or from some other force. All he knew was he felt strongly that if he tried to interrogate the demon, he would be truly sorry. So, instead, he said, “How do I use the power of the Bezirk to escape the dragon’s lair?”
“Remember the dream of Coyote and Mole Woman,” said the demon. “Use the space to create a tunnel between one known space and another.”
The boy thought for a moment and then asked: “Are you saying that I can create a passageway between where I am now and a place I have been?”
The demon nodded in the affirmative.
“How can I do that?”
The demon said, “Imagine a place where you have been and then force your will against the wall of this space and watch the space expand toward that remembered place.”
Asa had an excellent sense of direction: he always seemed to know the direction of true north so he pictured his current location and then imagined the barn where he met Akna. Once he had both places firmly in his mind he willed a passageway toward the barn and, a few minutes, stepped back in amazement, watching the wall of the Bezirk elongate and stretch itself forward into the semblance of a tunnel that inched inexorably toward the southwest; the direction he remembered the barn and the cantina.
As he watched the passageway that was neither in time nor space, he asked: “How do I exit the Bezirk?
The demon smiled and said, “You must mark the beginning and the end to establish the tunnel’s existence and then you will call for a gate to open on the command of your choice.” The demon paused. “All these things and more are contained in the Grimoire of Shadow.”
Stern realized that the demon was giving him a taste of power, hoping that it would cause him to seek out the book of magic. Very obvious, but very apt, he thought.
Principium written in blood at the beginning and exitus inscribed at the end will complete the passage. Choose whatever word you want to gain access or egress through a portal and write it on the wall in your blood.”
As they talked, the tunnel continued forward and he said, “How will I know when the passage is complete?”
“It will stop and a space identical to this will form,” answered the demon.
Asa opened the wound on his shoulder and wrote the word for beginning in lingua on the floor. As he worked at the letters, he decided to ask about the dragon.
“Why didn’t the dragon attack me?” he said.
“Ah,” responded the demon. “It is the dragon skin elixir in your body. She thought you were a dragon.”
“You know about the dragon skin?” he asked, finishing the word on the floor.
“Of course, it is in you so I must know it,” he said sharply.
His tone startled the boy so he asked: “What’s the matter? Why have you changed your tone?”
The demon modulated his voice, probably because he did not want the boy to know anything bothered him. “The one who fed you the dragon skin is a mortal enemy. She is a member of the Category.”
“I have heard that word before but I have no idea what it means.”
But before the demon responded to his statement about the Category, the passageway stopped with a shudder, and the demon said, “You have reached your goal. Be careful and come to me in the Argantine as quickly as you can.” His image then disappeared and Stern suspected he left because he had said too much and wanted to escape the boy’s incessant questions.
Stern started down the long stretch of tunnel. He advanced slowly through the passageway; the shoulder wound had opened again and he felt weak.
Hours passed and he had to stop several times to rest. Once he fell into a feverish sleep and dreamed of Coyote and Mole woman, making love on a vast prairie. It was a graphic dream and he awoke covered in sweat and very thirsty. The thought he might die in the Bezirk crossed his mind. What would happen to his body if he died in no space and no time?
A day passed within the tunnel. No time passed outside, when he had reached the end. He drew the word “Mara” on the wall and then he said,”Exitus.” A portal opened that shimmered and vibrated. On the other side he could see the wooden floor of the barn’s loft, the place he had hid with Akna. He stepped through and shivered from some sort of mild electrical charge as time and space reasserted their power over him.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Chapter Four of "Gottesland"

SHE LED HIM FROM THE BARN, out the back and down a hill, past two corrals, toward the rushing mountain stream surging toward the sea. Half-way down, they heard the bark of one of the shotguns and then screams. Gun fire erupted and they halted for a second, terrified of what was happening to the people in the clearing. She moved first, her sense of self-preservation stronger than his at this point; weeks of illness had weakened his resolve. The dragon skin had helped him, bolstered his health and his sense of being, but even that seemed to be wearing off now. It was her sense of urgency that propelled them on. Of course, she saw him as her means of escape. Alone, she would never have the strength or resolve to escape, but with him, she would be able to do it. She knew she could. They just had to survive the current mayhem. The question running through her mind was whether they should both go now or whether he should hide and she should go back and plan their escape. They needed food and mounts if they were to escape Mexico and travel to her home in the Maya-tan. This was a fact and she knew that only she could make it happen. The Black Robes were here for him: that was clear to her. They would not want her. When they discovered he had escaped they would leave and then she would be able to steal what they needed for the road. It was all very clear in her mind. She was surprised by how she saw things unfolding from here on out. It was if she were experiencing a vision.
            The water dropped headlong toward the sea, rushing from the snow-capped mountain. Approximately thirty feet wide, the flow was so strong that a crossing on foot was almost impossible but a rocky shelf about two miles downstream provided a way through that only the people living and working in the clearing knew about.  The crossing was marked by a cairn of stone about two feet high, she told him, and he would know it when he saw it. She had to return to the clearing and on her return she would erase their tracks. He would have to go on his own. “When you reach the cairn,” she said, “you must cross the stream and then go north. About five miles into the forest there is an outcropping of stone and a shallow cave. It is a lovers’ trysting place. Wait there for me.” He looked into her eyes and held her hand. He had been alone for so long, separated from his mother’s people, and here was a beautiful woman helping him. His eyes filled with tears and he felt something he had never felt before, a feeling of longing.
            She embraced him and kissed him on each cheek and then turned away and grabbed a broken branch from a berry bush that she used to brush away their tracks. He watched her disappear into the thick underbrush and then followed the bank of the stream down the hill toward the ford of stone she had described. As he walked he suddenly began to remember the Argyll words for the plants and stones. Meeting Akna had broken a barrier holding back the memories of his youth. As he walked, he imagined he still felt the warmth of her hand in his, a feeling he found quite comforting.
            The sun slipped behind the mountains and the shadows lengthened. He was marching east, along the banks of the river, and soon it would be dark. Akna had said that the cairn was several miles from where they separated. If he didn’t reach it soon, he feared he would pass it in the night. He decided to stop and find a place to pass the night if he didn’t find the cairn soon; he could not afford passing it in the dark and traveling miles down the mountain without finding the ford. And if he missed the ford and didn’t go to the cave, then he would miss Akna. This he could not afford to do.
            With night, the temperature dropped and the trail in the dark became treacherous. One misstep and he could fall and break an arm or leg, so he decided he had to wander from the trail and find a place to spend the night. The undergrowth that grew against the clay banks of the stream and under the pine forest on each side was thick and coarse. He had no knife or sword to clear the way so he forced himself through, tearing his uniform, scratching his hands and face until he found an opening under some wild berry bushes. He pushed his way in and curled up on a bed of dead leaves and vines and lay quiet, slowing his heart and lungs, trying to discern if he had been followed. He heard the rushing water, the hoot of an owl hunting in the woods, and then the rattle of a woodpecker beating against some hardwood tree.
            His life had been spent in La Ciudad. First, he lived down below the city in the decaying underground in a tiny cubicle with his mother and father and, then, after his mother’s death, in the barracks of the military school. Rarely did the cadets make forays into the countryside; instead, their training was on playing fields behind the school’s stone walls or in the dank dark gymnasium below the barracks. He was never alone during those years but always lonely. Akna’s presence reminded him of his past and he tried to conjure up a memory of his mother. He was five when she died at the hands of a racist madman, who would have killed him but for his rescue by an old woman who just happened to hear his mother’s screams. She beat the man off with her cane until several neighbors came running at her cries of “murder!” He remembered his father’s face when he found him in the woman’s cubicle not far from theirs. His eyes were red from crying; his hair disheveled. His hands shook as he lifted him up and carried him home.
            Tears ran down his face. He had not remembered that day in a long, long time. And where was his father now? He disappeared, killed some said by cutthroats near the great wall two years ago. Just lost said the Black Robes. They never found his body.
The sound of the water and the quiet of the night lulled him to sleep even though he was very cold, very sad and very afraid. He pulled his body into the fetal position seeking to maintain his body’s heat, as dreams descended upon him. Once again he was in the pagyn in his mother’s arms; their wagon jostling along through deep jungle, heading north toward Mexico and the papal kingdom’s capital La Ciudad. He opened his eyes and spied stars through the canvas of leaves and on a gnarled limb of an ancient cottonwood lay the supine body of a jaguar, its emerald green eyes watching as the pagyn rumbled beneath it and its long tail flicking rhythmically to some inner syncopation.
The dream shifted, as dreams do, and he imagined he was the jaguar on the limb and he was watching a large flat-bed pagyn covered with Argyll performers fleeing the rape of Maya-tan, the Mayan city of the gods, in the south and hurrying toward the decaying fleshpots of the papal city of the north. He felt a deep rumble in his chest, the deep-throated growl of a jungle cat, and he flared his black nostrils, caught the porcine stench of a wild boar and awoke.
The smell of rot and musk and sour mud filled his nose and he heard the sound of an animal rooting near the base of one of the nearby pine trees. He was downwind of the creature, which he realized was good; otherwise, the wild boar would attack him and rip him from groin to chest. He could barely make the creature out in the dark but he could certainly hear it and smell it. As he watched the creature, he tried to figure out a plan. Movement out of the undergrowth would be a loud and messy business. If the creature stayed upwind it might move on without knowing he was here.
The beast continued to root away, searching, he imagined, for truffles or other indigenous tubers until a noise from the north startled him and the pig. Men’s voices, speaking lingua, emanated from the banks of the stream and then a splash and a loud curse.  “Help me,” called one of the men. “I can’t get a hold on this damn bank. It’s as slippery as hell.” Then, another voice called out: “Hang on.”
He knew they were searching for him and he squeezed against the earth, trying to make himself as small as possible. Behind him, he heard the pig snort and then turn and run deeper into the forest. For a moment, he feared the men would hear the boar but they were too occupied with the rushing stream and the possible loss of one of their comrades to hear. He slowly reached out and carefully pulled leaves over his body, hoping to further hide him from the men and the pig.
He lay still for a long time, straining to hear any movement that would indicate the location of the men. At some point, he fell asleep. When he awoke, the sun was overhead and he could hear birds moving through the trees. A sparrow was near his head eating berries from the vines that sheltered him.
He was hungry, too, and he reached out and plucked several berries and popped them into his mouth.
No voices could be heard; only the rushing stream and the birds chirping all around him. A yellow and black snake slithered through the dead leaves and crawled over his booted leg and black ants nibbled at the detritus near his nose. He crawled from beneath the blanket of dead leaves and debris and out from beneath the shadows of the berry vines. He relived himself against a tree and blew his nose by holding first one nostril and then the other.
The morning was frosty and a pale fog covered the ground, as he found the muddy clay trail that ran next to the rushing stream. He soon found the spot where the man had fallen into the water. The bank was scarred with scratches and breaks and boot prints, aimed toward the east. They were ahead of him, he thought, searching for the ford that Akna had told him about yesterday. If she were not involved he would have set off through the woods but now he felt committed to her to meet her in the cave and travel south to the Maya-tan. The thought of returning to his home and his people intrigued him. He felt no loyalty to the Mexicans. The attack two months ago changed him, hardened his heart against them.
His stomach growled and rumbled as he headed east along the bank and the sun climbed from the horizon and burned off the fog and warmed the air. Dragonflies and gnats buzzed along the banks and animals moved in the woods around him, coming to the water to drink. 
As the day wore on, he felt the land bend and the descent sharpen; he was leaving the hills at the base of the snow-capped mountains behind him.
The cairn was near a visible change in the land. Two hundred yards beyond it was a fall. He could hear the water rumbling over the edge and thundering to the land below it.
Beneath the surface of the water, he could see a stone shelf that rose from the river bed like a hidden bridge. This was the ford that Akna identified. Around the cairn he could see the tracks of three men and he wondered if two of them were the Black Robes who had attacked the dragoons. Beyond the cairn there were no tracks and he suspected that the men had crossed the stream earlier in the day. ‘Had Akna also passed?” he asked himself. All of the tracks were made by boots. She had been wearing moccasins. He doubted she had crossed yet.
From the tracks, he knew three men had crossed the ford and he suspected that Akna had not. He could cross and try to find the cave but he might run into the men or he could leave the trail and head into the woods and continue east to Veracruz. Akna would never know what happened to him and she might run into the men once she crossed the river heading to the cave to meet him. He could not abandon her.
Another possibility occurred to him. He could go back up-river toward the clearing and the Catina and hope to meet Akna on the way down but that was also dangerous, he quickly realized. The Black Robe could still be there. Finally, he decided to traverse the ford and trek to the cave and hope that Akna would make it there without running into the men stalking him.
The stream rushed downhill at a tremendous speed and he knew it would take all his strength to cross. But willow-like Akna had crossed so he imagined he could do it.
He stepped into the water and found his footing on the smooth stones that made up the submerged bridge. One step and then another and he was in the water that rushed around his waist, no higher. Sliding his feet rather than lifting them he moved doggedly across, keeping the other side in view. And then he heard her calling him and looked over his left shoulder to see her coming down the path next to the stream; a pack was on her back and she carried a large stave. She was calling him and pointing. Something was wrong and then he turned toward where she was pointing. Three men came over a knoll on the opposite shore of the stream, running toward him. He recognized the two Black Robes from the clearing and a third man, not a Black Robe but n Azteca tracker.
The Black Robes were carrying their shotguns, weapons used at short range. But the tracker had a long-barreled carbine, favored by indio hunters, and he had stopped and knelt on one knee and raised the weapon, aiming at Stern, who stood exposed in the middle of the stream. Just as the man shot, Stern shouted to Akna to run and hide and then the round hit him in the right shoulder and he tumbled into the water and was swept away in the boiling rush of the icy swirl. He disappeared beneath the surface and hit his head on a rock and was unconscious as the mountain waters carried him two hundred yards to the fall. He went over without a sound and then fell seventy-five feet into the clear lake at the base of the hill.