Getting through the outer mat of vines without a machete would have been next to impossible. Al started hacking away. In a few minutes he was through the outer wall.
The jungle was not so dense once inside. Al looked about searching for a trail. There was none, but there were many small paths that seemed to go in every direction. One of them seemed to be going parallel to the river. He got on it and started with a fast walk. Just ahead was some thick brush and bushes. It looked like there was plenty of room to get through the foliage. Al ducked his head and started making his way between the brush. One of the branches seemed to reach out and grab him by the sleeve of his shirt. He gave it a yank. Another came down and took hold of his back. He tried to push forward. This brought down more small arms covered with barbs that looked like fishhooks. The plants refused to let go.
Al swore under his breath. He took the machete and started cutting himself loose. His shirt was badly torn and his arms and back were scratched and bleeding by the time he got through this barrier.
Just ahead of him was a small open space. He had wasted valuable minutes back there; he would make up for it. He had the rifle in his left hand, the machete in his right and took off on the run.
A creeping vine caught the toe of his shoe and he went sprawling. The machete flew from his hand. He tried to break his fall and hang onto the rifle. He must protect the rifle!
He staggered forward. His legs felt tired; his back was on fire, and his throat was dry. He must have water! Suddenly he remembered the warning of Nocho. “Do not fight the jungle. If you do you will not win.”
This had been good advice but he hadn’t taken it! He had been fighting a losing battle. If he kept on this way he would never make it. He had better slow down!
There was a fallen log just ahead. He sat down, breathing hard, and looked at his watch. He had been gone a half-hour. He wondered if he had passed the bend in the river. He slowly got to his feet. “Take it easy.” He told himself. He looked around at the many small trails. There didn’t seem to be as many of them now. A lot of them had come together making one, which was larger then the rest. The large trail seemed to be going in the right direction, so he began following it.
It was getting wider, and on the trail were many animal tracks. For sure now it was an animal trail. It would take him to some definite spot. He hoped it would be the river, and water.
He was moving much slower now, but making better time. The trail suddenly took a sharp turn and went down a steep incline. He slid down it and almost went tumbling into the water.
It was a beautiful sight. He quenched his thirst and washed himself. In a few minutes he felt quite refreshed. He would rest a few moments and then be on his way.
It would help if he knew exactly where he was. He took the machete and chopped a hole through the hanging vines. One quick look told him that he had passed the bend in the river. Up ahead, about a quarter mile, was the waterfall!
He picked up the rifle and once more was on his way. This time he was determined to take his time. He had almost lost the battle back there. It would not happen again.
The animal trail continued following the contour of the river. Now he was making much better time. He passed through a big open meadow. He could no longer find the trail, but he could hear the sound of the waterfall. He had made it!
He followed the sound. It was getting louder. Now he was very close. He must get above the falls! He kept going. He came to a small trail that looked like it would take him to the river. He got on it and followed it through the bushes. Now the sound of the water was in back of him. He was above the falls.
Here the ground seemed to be solid rock. There was not much foliage. He followed the trail to the edge of the canyon and stopped. There were some bushes just ahead of him. He moved cautiously toward them and took a fast look. He could see the river below.
Their boat was not in sight. They probably had not yet reached the bend in the river. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled over close to the rim. Now he could see the falls. He was just above them and could plainly see the trail going up the other side of the river. And he could see something else! Where the trail left the river was a small flat bottom boat. It had been drug up on the bank behind some bushes, out of sight from anyone coming up the river in a boat.
Somewhere on the other side of the river was the scar-faced killer. When the boat was close enough he would open fire. Al shuddered. It was the perfect place for an ambush all right. Nocho had certainly figured everything correctly.
A fire was beginning to burn inside Al. It was his gun that the man intended to use, his gun and his ammunition. Also, the dirty rat was wearing his boots!
He was probably hiding in the rocks above. Al backed away. A little bit farther up the river might give him better view of his hiding place. He backed up away from the rim. Then crawled forward to where there was a clump of tall grass twenty feet above. He took a quick look. He could get a better view, but he needed better cover. About ten feet farther were more bushes. Al crawled on his belly until he was behind them. One of them was quite tall. He stood up behind it.
His first thoughts were of Adilia and his friends. He parted the leafy branches in front of him and looked down the river. The boat was just coming around the bend. He had told them not to come too close.
Now he could get a much better view of the rocky beach across the river. There were several big boulders that a man could easily hide behind. But he could see no one. Al tried to put himself in his place. If he were going to ambush a party, which rock would he hide behind? How about that big one in front? It would not only give good cover but also there would be nothing in the way when the fireworks started.
He took another look at the boat. At this distance it was hard to tell how many people were in it. He couldn’t determine how many and he hoped the scar-faced killer would take for granted all four of them were there. If the boat came close enough he would be able to see there were only three people. Al would sure keep a sharp lookout over his shoulder!
And another thing, if he were waiting for that boat he would certainly stand up and take a look once and a while, and make sure everything was ready for the slaughter.
The distance across the canyon was a hundred yards. The gun in his hands would be right on target at that distance. A slight breeze was blowing down the canyon. He figured the bullet could drift about two inches. If the man rose up he would be looking down the river. Al would aim at the back of the head. The bullet would strike two inches forward and he had to make sure there would be another on the way. He would never hear the shot! There would be no pain and the big hunt would be finished.
Then, suddenly, Al could see the man! He had just stood up behind the big rock and his eyes were on the boat coming up the river. He stood there with his arms folded in front of him. The big white hat pulled low to shield his eyes from the sun.
It was him all right. He was a big man and was wearing a blue shirt. But where was the gun? Probably leaning against the rock. His quarry was not yet in rifle range.
The stock of the rifle was at Al’s cheek; the safety was off. The sights were exactly where he wanted them, his finger curled around the trigger. Less than an ounce of pressure and it would be finished. He could almost hear the report of the rifle, but it did not come. Like a man on a high pole afraid to jump his finger was frozen stiff. It refused to pull the trigger!
He lowered the barrel; his hands were trembling. Good god! He couldn’t kill the man in cold blood! He was standing there without a weapon! Al cursed himself. What difference did it make whether or not the guy had a gun in his hand? He had killed before and was ready to kill again. When the boat got close enough he would open up with that semi-automatic and kill them all.
He remembered just a few days ago when Nocho had called the turkey up in the clearing. He had almost let the bird get away. Now the same thing was happening again. Only this time he was letting a killer escape! What had come over him?
Once more he raised his rifle, but he was too late. The big white hat had disappeared behind a ledge of rocks. A feeling of horror swept over Al. He had his chance and he failed. If his friends were to die now their blood would be on his hands.
For several minutes he laid there his eyes glued to the big rock wondering what to do. Probably from where the killer was lying or sitting he could keep an eye on the boat. When it was close enough he would raise up and open fire.
Al knew he must do something, and do it fast. He glanced up the river. Several hundred feet above him it was quite wide. Several big rocks were sticking up through the water, which seemed to indicate it was not very deep. If he were only across the river, he might have had a chance. He could come up from behind and get the drop on him. That seemed to be his only way.
Al threw caution to the wind and raced up the sandy beach until he was out of breath. Then, behind a big rock, he stopped for a moment. The river was a hundred feet wide, and didn’t appear to be very deep. The water was clear and was running quite fast. It looked to Al that with a little luck he would be able to wade across. He stepped into the water and was on his way.
The water kept pushing him downstream. First it was up to his waist, then to his arms, and then to his neck. He dropped the machete and held the gun high above his head, and kept going.
Then the bottom began to slope upward. The water was at his waist, then his knees. He was almost to the bank when he stepped on a flat rock covered with moss. It was very slick. One foot shot out from under him. He tried desperately to regain his balance. He threw the rifle at the bank to save it. His hands went automatically behind him to break the fall. He hit the water with a loud splash.
He rolled over, got to his feet, and headed for the bank. He picked up the gun and examined it. It had landed in a pile of rocks. He had better make sure it was all right. He removed the clip and tried to eject the shell from the barrel. He gave the slide lever a pull. It came back part way and froze. When it hit the rocks, it had bent the working parts. The gun was worthless, at least for today.
Al sat down on a rock with the gun in his hands. He felt like his whole world had been pulled from under him. A hundred yards below, a man was waiting with a loaded automatic. What could he do with a broken gun?
He had told Nocho not to get in rifle range of the falls. They would probably stop a couple of hundred yards below them. The killer might grow restless, go down the trail, and take them by surprise.
He must do something, and do it fast. The man down there in the rocks didn’t know the gun was worthless. Maybe he could get the drop on him, run a bluff. Maybe he would surrender. This was his only hope.
He would crawl through the grass like he had done many times while duck hunting with the idea to sneak up on him! He would belt him over the head. He started crawling through the tall grass.
The ground was covered with small broken rocks, some of them razor sharp. Blood was running from his elbows and knees, but he kept going. The sun was burning his back to a blister. He kept on going. And now he was getting closer, much closer.
There was a big clump of grass just ahead. He would stop and take a quick look. To his surprise, the big rock was very close, about fifty feet to his right. Just to the left of this big one was another about half its size. They were about four feet apart. A dense growth of bushes was blocking the entrance between them.
Al was certain that there was where the man had disappeared. Between those two rocks, he would find him!
What would be his best move now? The dense growth of bushes on this side would be difficult to go through. To go around and come in from the front would be certain death!
The closest rock had a lone sloping surface on this side. It looked like he might be able to climb to the top of it. At least it would be worth a try. Once more, he was crawling in that direction.
Now he was to the rock, the only thing between him and the killer. He looked it over carefully. It was rough and had many crevices. It would be easy to climb.
He wiped the sweat off his forehead, and with the gun in one hand, began to climb. In less than a minute he was on top.
A few feet farther ahead and down was the scar-faced killer. What should he do now? He could drop down and start swinging the rifle like a baseball bat, but suppose the killer was to move a little? He would hear the noise and he would be ready.
Al licked his dry lips. There was only one way. Run a bluff. Try and get him to surrender. If he wouldn’t, throw the gun at him and come crashing down. With the gun in front of him, he moved forward. Just another foot, before he looked down.
The man was standing there looking down the river. He was very calmly eating a banana. The rifle was not in his hands. It was leaning against the rock, several feet back of him.
Al pointed the gun at his head and spoke. “Don’t move, or you are a dead man.”
The man froze.
“Turn your head very slowly, and look this way.”
The man did as he was told.
Al knew the fellow was looking up the center of the rifle barrel.
“Now turn half way around. Look down the river. Put your hands above your head and keep them there, or I will blow it off your shoulders!”
The man’s hands were in the air. Once again, he was facing the river below.
Al wanted the man a little farther from the rifle below. Then he would come sliding down, and get it in his hands.
“Move!” He shouted. “Or I’ll blow your brains out!”
The man took a few steps, then very slowly, he turned facing Al. There was a faint smile on his face. He spoke.
“Put the gun down Al. You are not going to kill me. Neither am I going to kill you.”
Al about fell off the rock. Not only had the guy called him by his first name, but he had also spoken in perfect English. Al shook his head as though to clear it. Was the heat getting to him? His voice sounded strange and far away. “Just who the hell are you?”
The big man did not hesitate. “My name is John Kirkland Junior. I was not waiting here to kill you, only to welcome you.”
Al could not believe his own ears. Surely this was a trick. It must be a trick! He had better keep on his toes! He slid down the rock and landed beside the gun. Quickly, he exchanged the broken one for the one leaning against the rock. A quick look told him it was loaded and ready to go.
Someone had probably told this fellow that he had been asking about John Kirkland. Somehow he had found out. Well there was one way that he, himself could settle this.
With his left hand, he drew out his pocketbook. It was wet and soggy. He pulled out the picture of John Kirkland and handed it to the man. It was wet but still clear enough.
“Who is this man?” Al demanded.
The man took one look at the picture, then handed it back.
“That,” he said, “is a picture of my father. Is this the one Mister Young gave you in Managua?”
Al was speechless. He nodded dumbly.
“Anything else you would like to know?”
“Maybe you are John Kirkland, but you are also a wanted killer. Three times you have killed, maybe more. What have you got to say about that?”
The man nodded. “Yes, I killed three men; if you could call them men. You would have done the same thing if you knew them7. Killing was too good for them.”
Al still had the gun pointed at the man’s heart.
“How did you know my name?”
The man reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a thin piece of paper about six square inches. He handed it to Al.
“This is a message I received from Young. Would you care to read it? It says you were coming to Quilali to look for my father. It came all the way by carrier pigeon. We use them a lot here.”
Al let the paper flutter to the ground. The rifle was stead in his hands. Kirkland or not, he was wanted by the law. He must take him back to Quilali.
“I have orders to bring you back for the trial. I hope you come peacefully.”
“Suppose I refuse?”
“Then I will take you, one way or the other.”
The big man nodded slowly. “My father has told me many stories about your father. You must be a lot like him. I have heard about the sentence that the judge passed on you, and I can see the position it puts you in. However, I don’t think that you would shoot your own cousin.”
Al almost dropped the rifle. “Cousin! Did you say cousin?”
“Your father and mine married sisters. That makes us cousins, doesn’t it?”
Al’s mind was in a whirl. He didn’t want to shoot anyone, least of all a blood relative. He had traveled thousands of miles so get here, hoping to find some relatives. Now that he had found one, would he kill him, even if he were a wanted killer? Hell no! However, what about the man in front of him? Was he to be trusted? Well, there was only one way to find out.
The gun with the jimmied bolt was leaning against the rock. The man didn’t know it was broken. Al picked it up by the barrel and handed it to the man in front of him. He stepped back a couple of steps and leaned the other rifle against the rock.
“No, I couldn’t shoot you…not unless you tried to kill me first. So make up your mind.”
The man stood there for a second; looking at the gun in his hands, then up at Al, who was apparently at his mercy. Slowly, he turned around and threw the gun to the rocks below.
He turned around and faced Al, who was walking toward him with a big smile on his face.
John Kirkland grinned, and hurried to meet him halfway.