Chapter Fifteen

This entry is part 15 of 36 in the series Bend

Chapter Fifteen

It was beginning to get quite dark. A large crowd had gathered in front of the hotel. “Did you find out what’s going on?” Al asked.

Pio nodded, “Yes, today is a very special day for the natives in this area. Would you like me to tell you about it?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“It is an old custom they have here. I will tell you what I know about it. Here in the jungle there are many more women than men, there are several reasons for this. To begin with there are more girls born than boys. Early in life all the children get fever. Don’t ask me why, but many more boys die than girls. Also, many of the young men leave here searching for jobs. As a result there are many more women here than men. The native women love children and feel it their duty to raise a family. They do not wait until they are married. When they are old enough, they start having kids. It is no disgrace here to have children without being married. In fact, if a woman has two or three children she is much more desirable.” Pio grinned, “Once a year a day is set aside for the un-wed mothers to come to town and find them a husband.”

“And this is that day?”

Pio nodded.

“If there aren’t enough men to go around, how do they expect to find a husband?”

“They do not expect to find a husband who is not already married. They will be satisfied to become the number two or number three wife.”

‘Really a mans world,’ thought Al. “Is the party over with?” Al asked.

“No I think it is about to begin. Would you like to watch?”

“Might just as well. No fun sitting around here and we will be just as safe out there.”

Each of them was wearing a pistol. Al picked up the little rifle. This one he would keep an eye on.

“Lead the way, Pio.”

With the coming of darkness the moon had come peeking up over the jungle. It was nearly as light as day. On the high bank overlooking the Coco there were many men standing on the rim gazing across the river.

Al and Pio stepped close to the bank and stopped a few yards from the rest. “They will come across the river,” whispered Pio. For several minutes they stood there watching. Here the Coco was wide and shallow. A person could easily wade across.

“I wonder if Barto is here. Keep an eye open for him Pio. He is probably very drunk by now.”

Suddenly, across the river, they could see many tiny lights. There were many figures all clothed in white. They stepped into the water and came wading across. They were all singing. Their voices came floating across the water. As they approached the bank they could be seen more plainly. Each woman wore a white dress and her head was covered with white shawl or scarf. With one hand she held the dress high to keep it out of the water. In the other hand was a candle, which she held in front of her face. They came walking up the trail still singing.

The words were strange to Al. He whispered to Pio, “In what language are they singing?”

“It’s the native language here, Mosquito Indian,” he whispered back.

The procession moved forward and soon they were in the main street of town. All the women formed a line and once more the singing began. The little candle was held in front of their face.

The men went into action. Several of them walked over to the lineup, took a girl by the arm and walked away. More followed suit, soon there was only a few left. One of them was a slender young girl and she was quite pretty.

Suddenly Pio grabbed Al’s arm and pointed across the street. “Look Señor!”

Al had the rifle ready. However the man standing there was not the killer, it was Barto.

Al stared at him for a moment; Barto’s face gave him the shivers. There was no doubt that he was very drunk. His snarled hair was hanging down over his eyes. There was a horrible grin on his face and saliva was running off his chin. Blubbering sounds came from between his lips.

Al’s voice was low. “He is drunk Pio, the man is crazy, he is a beast!”

“Someone has cast an evil spell upon him!”

Al had read that much voodoo and witchcraft was practiced in this country. Several times earlier Pio had made remarks about evil spirits. Did he believe in this stuff? Surely a man as intelligent as Pio didn’t go for this sort of rubbish.

There were three women left. Two men stepped out and claimed two of them. There was one left, a slim young girl. Then, suddenly, from out of the shadows came Barto. He grabbed her by the arm and together they ran down the street and disappeared behind the hotel.

“Did you see that?” Whispered Al.

Pio nodded, “I wonder what he will do with the girl?”

“I guess the ceremony was a success, as the girls were all taken. Shall we go back to the hotel?” suggested Pio.

They walked back to the hotel and went inside. The entrance to the room was through the kitchen. The woman and the two girls were nowhere in sight. A kerosene lamp was burning on the table. No new bunks were made; evidently there were no more guests. The bottle of rum and some clean glasses were on the table. Al poured a couple of stiff drinks and handed one to Pio.

“I wish Barto hadn’t taken that girl. We sure can’t take her with us down river” stated Al. “Maybe he has someone here he can leave her for a while?”

“I hope so” replied Pio.

They sat down and sipped their rum. An hour ago the town was full of people. Now they were gone. There was hardly a sound. Al glanced at the big room. The two bunks that were made-up were near the back. There was a sheet and a blanket on each one.

There was only one window; which was in the front of the building. It was covered with a window screen. ‘They would be safe enough here,’ Al thought, if one of them stood guard while the other slept. It was early yet and there was a long night ahead of them. There was no hurry about going to bed.

He had a deck of cards in his bag. Al asked Pio; “Do you play cards?”

Pio shook his head no.

“I’ll get them and teach you how to play gin rummy.” Al had barely gotten to his feet, when, out of the stillness, came a horrible scream. Al felt as though the hair on the back of his neck went straight into the air. The cry was not from a human or any animal he had ever heard. It started off with a low moan. Then louder and louder, higher and higher, ending in a high shriek!

Al looked at Pio. His face was deadly pale. His lips were moving as though he were praying.

“What is it?” Al asked.

The blood-curdling scream once more filled the air. A few seconds later there was another. This one sounded like it was a woman. Pio was trembling all over his body.

Al grabbed him by his shoulders and shook him. “What is it Pio? Snap out of it!”

“The death bird,” he whispered.

All shook him some more. “What do you mean the death bird?”

Pio was trying hard to get control of himself. “Has no one told you of the death bird?”

“No Pio. Tell me about it?”

“When the bird screams, someone that has heard him will die before morning!”

“Do you believe that?”

He nodded, “You shall see!”

“If we are the only ones who heard him, does that mean one of us will die?”

Pio nodded again, “If we are the only ones that heard him, yes! Do you think we are the only ones that heard him, Señor Mackey?”

“Lord no Pio, that yell would wake the dead.” Al hesitated. He had better not argue with this man. If Pio believed this nonsense, let him. Al grinned. “I hope the killer heard him, also that damn Judge. I hope it scared both of them to death.”

“It is a very powerful and wicked bird Señor Mackey.”

Al decided he would play along with the guy. “What is this bird like Pio? Did you ever see one?”

“No but I have talked to people who have. It is big and black and has huge claws and a beak of steel! I know of some people that captured one and put it in a steel cage. The cage could not hold it. With his beak the bird tore the cage apart and escaped.”

“Why didn’t they kill it?”

“No they could not do that. If they killed the bird, they would die that same night!”

Al knew that Pio was superstitious, but he didn’t know he believed this kind of rubbish. He walked over to the table. The light was growing dim; the lamp was about out of oil. There was a candle stuck to a board beside each bed. Al lit one, and then blew out the lamp.

Al decided it was bedtime. “Lets call it a day Pio.”

Pio had somewhat gained his composure, and he nodded.

“We will take turns sleeping.” Al took a coin out of his pocket. “I’ll flip you to see who takes first watch.”

Pio shook his head, “I’m not sleepy. I will take first watch.”

Al kicked off his shoes and laid down on one of the bunks. “Good night Pio, when you get sleepy wake me up, then you can get some shut eye.” It had been a long day and Al was tired. In a few minutes he was sound asleep.

It was four o’clock in the morning when Pio awakened him. He rubbed his eyes and set up on the edge of the bed. “Is everything alright Pio?”

Everything is fine and it’s almost morning.”

“You should have awakened me sooner.”

“I have been thinking,” said Pio. “There were many strangers in town last night. Many of them will be leaving at daybreak. I am worried about the boat, someone may steal it.”

“What do you suggest?”

“I shall go down to the river and lie in the boat. I will get some sleep and the boat will be safe.”

Al got up and slipped on his shoes. This sounded like a good idea. He took the rifle from Pio’s hands. The pistol he was wearing should be sufficient. “Take some blankets and try to get some sleep. I will guard myself until morning.” A moment later Pio slipped outside and faded into the darkness.

It was only a few hours until daybreak, but it seemed to Al that morning would never come. By candlelight he studied the map. The auto road ended here at Talpinecci. If he followed this road he would eventually end up in the city of Managua. What would be his chances of escaping? Probably by now most everyone knew about him and the mission he was pursuing. If he attempted to escape there would surely be a reward put on his head. He would be wanted, but wanted dead! No he would never make it. There was only one avenue of escape; find the killer, and bring him in dead or alive!

Finally, daybreak came. Al shaved using cold water. The old woman cooked beefsteak and eggs. She had also brewed a pot of strong black coffee. ‘It tasted much the same as that served by the Nigger Woman,’ he thought.

After breakfast he took his rifle and walked down to where they had left the boat. Pio’s blankets were in there, but the man was not. Al looked around. There were some big bushes above where he was standing. It wasn’t long before a man came walking out, thankfully, it was Pio.

“I am up here Señor. It was getting very hot in the boat, so I moved up here to be in the shade.”

“Have you seen Barto?”

“No he has not shown up yet. Maybe he is trying to find someone to take care of the girl.”

Several women came walking down the trail. On top of their heads were large baskets filled with clothing. They removed their dresses and hung them on the bushes, then waded into the river where some big rocks were sticking up high above the water.

The topside of the rocks was worn smooth from hundreds of years of use. They were the washboards. The women began to sing, while at the same time doing their washing. They were getting two jobs done at the same time; the washing and their morning bath. These people used primitive methods. Yet they kept their bodies clean and their clothes spotless.

The sun was bearing down; it was beginning to get hot. Al wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. “If Barto doesn’t get here pretty quickly, we will go without him,” he told Pio.

“We must have a guide that knows the country below,” said Pio. “Also the boat belongs to Barto. We cannot take his boat.”

Al motioned with his hand. “Up river a bit is another boat. I wonder who the owner is?”

“I don’t know, but I think it belongs to the old man Nocho. He came up the river in a boat.”

“If Barto doesn’t show up soon, we will try and find him. Maybe he will guide us down the river.”

Suddenly, there were rapid footsteps coming down the sandy beach in their direction. Al looked up to see Barto, who was running and racing straight for the boat.

“Good Lord Pio, look at the man!” Al stared in amazement, his shirt was ripped and torn, and he was a bloody mess. His face and chest bore many deep scratches. Scratches that could have been made by only one thing, the fingernails of a woman! His hands and hairy arms were covered with blood.

“Good God,” whispered Pio. “He has killed the girl!”

Barto grabbed hold of the boat and started dragging it toward the river. Al and Pio jumped out into the open. Al leveled the rifle at Barto. “Keep your hands off the boat or I will kill you!” Al shouted.

For a second the man looked up. There was a wild look in his eyes. No doubt he was completely mad! Furiously he tugged at the boat, pulling it toward the water. Pio’s provisions were all in there. In a moment they would be gone. Al slipped the safety on the rifle and looked down the barrel. Barto’s head was in the sight, but Al couldn’t pull the trigger; he couldn’t shoot a crazy man!

Pio went into action. He made a dash at Barto, tackling him like a football player. They went tumbling down the bank landing together in the water below. For a moment Pio was on top, beating the man with his fists. Barto was strong, and he struck back knocking Pio down before falling on top of him. There was wild thrashing in the water. First one on top then the other. Al couldn’t tell one man from the other. They were fighting like tigers, first up, then down under the water. A woman screamed! Now they were both under the water, with bubbles coming up.

Al laid the gun down and headed for the river. He wouldn’t let Pio drown! He would dive into the water and get him! Suddenly a head appeared. Al backed up and reached for the rifle. If it were Barto he would kill him! Then the head turned and Al could see the man’s face. Thank God it was Pio! He waded out and took his hand helping him to the bank. Pio’s other hand had a firm grip on Barto’s hair.

Breathing heavily Pio staggered over to the rock and sat down. Barto lay on the sand spitting up water. The screaming of the woman had attracted a crowd. On the bank above were several men. Most of them were grinning. They had enjoyed watching the fight.

Barto had almost gotten the boat into the water. Al held the front end of the boat and dragged it far up the bank. Barto was sitting up and coughing. The deep scratches on his face and chest were bleeding. Al wondered what to do with him. He turned to the men on the bank.

“Someone go for the constable.” Al shouted. “This man is a killer!”

He had taken his eye off Barto for only a few seconds. Barto was slowly getting to his feet when he looked back. There were numerous rocks on the sandy beach. In each hand Barto held one, each rock was around the size of a teacup.

Al pointed the rifle at him. “Drop the rocks Barto!” The man didn’t seem to hear. His eyes were on Pio. Pio stood up; the pistol was still in the scabbard. He drew and shook the water from it.

“Drop the rocks Barto!” Al yelled.

Like a mad bull the man charged. The pistol in Pio’s hand exploded. A small hole appeared between the eyes of Barto. For a second he stood there. The mad look on his face slowly disappeared. He fell backward, rolled down the bank and into the swirling current of the river.

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