Had they been in a restaurant in Miami, they would have pronounced the meat tough and inedible and never visited the establishment again. Here, their first meal in the sunlight, it was heavenly, and the ex-slaves, at least, never tasted its like again. From this day on, all celebrations would be compared with the first meal of freedom.
As the steamy morning grew to a blistering afternoon, the great cat’s meat was roasted slowly in a makeshift covered pit. Fruit was gathered, berries and greens and yellows and reds, and vegetables, and nuts. Each was brought before Laura or Sam, who pronounced them good, bad, or maybe, depending on their memories of their last trip to Southern provinces of the Aztecs and Incas. The treasures were first heaped simply on the ground, and later placed in great makeshift baskets of vine. The jaguar’s skin hung taught between two great large-leafed rubbery trees.
One of the slaves brought forth a bamboo flute and became instantly popular. The jungle’s birds and creatures heard for the first time the music of All Under Heaven.
From a nearby lake, a tortoise was inducted into the party. After the proper divinations were read from its shell, the rest of the tortoise became soup in a pit lined with hot rocks from the fire. The future looked good on the shell, and the soup was even better.
After gathering fruit, dancing was the order of the day. Percussionists joined the flutist, making do with rocks of various make and size. Sam and Laura were required to dance at all times by the joyous crowd. By the time the fires burned low in the night, Sam and Laura were the most exhausted of anyone in the group, and they were the last to awaken in the warm morning of the next day’s sun.
Mai had fallen asleep near Sam and Laura, but was nowhere to be found when the twins awoke. Asking around, more through sign language than words, they were pointed off to the edge of the nearby lake. Mai was standing, in her frayed slaves’ silk, looking out over the placid waters.
Mai heard them, and turned.
“They want to stay,” she said. “I want to return with you.”
“Stay here?” asked Sam. “How?”
“This is the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen. They’re going to try to build a town here, on the side of the mountain.”
“That’s crazy, they aren’t prepared. They don’t even have any weapons!”
“They canbe pretty resourceful. Some of them had good skills besides digging.And making sharp pointy things, and building fire, is their main priority as of today.”
“Hm… ” said Laura. “And you don’t want to stay?”
“No, I’ll be coming with you if that’s all right. I’d like to see mom again, you know?”
“Well, we have to go now,” said Sam. “There are people waiting on us in America.”
“So let’s get started,” said Mai.
They made their farewells back at the makeshift village. A fence was making its way around the perimeter of the meadow. (Not likely to stop a jaguar, thought Laura.)
By late afternoon, even the sound of the flute had faded away. The jungle grew dense and its sounds drowned out all but their own footsteps. Mai was giving Laura and Sam a lesson in Chinese song, when Sam put up her hand.
“Quiet,” she whispered. “I think I’m hearing something that isn’t part of the jungle.”
She pulled her sword.
“Laura, take Mai forward, I’ll fall back. I think we’re being followed.”
Laura drew her revolver, and, taking Mai by the hand, continued through the jungle, brushing—carefully—vines away as they walked.
“Keep singing, Mai,” she said. “We shouldn’t let them know we’re onto them. They won’t be able to see us in this growth, but they might be able to hear your singing.”
“If she’s right,” said Mai.
“Oh, she usually is,” said Laura.
Some time later in the afternoon, they heard a scream, and a shot, and the thud of a bullet going into a tree a short ten yards from them.
“Damn this jungle!” whispered Laura. “They’re closer than I thought!”
She grabbed Mai with her left hand, holstered her revolver with the right, and unshouldered the rifle.
“Come on, I saw a little bit of light over this way. We might be able to get the drop on them.”
“Like I have any choice?” Mai asked as she was practically dragged along by Laura.
Laura was somewhat less careful now, and Mai was fairly certain that one of the vines that slapped her in their run was alive. They heard two other shots before reaching the light, but heard no bullets on these.
The light was a clearing, a small one. Laura scanned the edges quickly and then rushed across. On the other side, she stopped and kneeled.
“Stay behind me,” she said to Mai, “and hold this.”
She handed Mai her sword.
“And keep an eye out for anything unusual..”
“Unusual, like a snake wider than my wrist?”
“No, that’s pretty standard for the jungle,” Laura replied.
Mai swung the sword wildly and unexpertly above Laura’s head, and a snake’s head fell to the ground, writhing almost in time with the body above them.
“I think I’ll kill it anyway,” said Mai.
“Remind me to train you in how to use that thing,” said Laura.
“It worked, didn’t it?” asked Mai.
“It almost worked on my head,” said Laura.
Light glinted off bronze at the other edge of the clearing.
“Spanish soldiers,” hissed Laura, as she sighted on the glint.
Another one stepped almost to the edge, and pulled at the first one to return to the jungle. Laura fired once, chick-chock as she slammed the lever action on her Marlin down and up again and fired again at the second figure, chick-chock again and waited. One definitely fell. One might have, but she couldn’t see.
“Not another snake?” whispered Laura.
“Depends,” said Sam, “metaphorically or no? Come, let’s get out of here—with the shots and screams, they must know exactly where we are.”
Sam led them through the jungle.
“If you don’t like screams,” muttered Mai, “don’t sneak up on people like that!”
“Sneaking is necessary now. You’d better learn it as well. There are—were—twelve Spanish soldiers,” said Sam. “Eleven now, one missing a hand. He’s the one who tried to shoot the two of you earlier.”
“One less on our end,” said Laura. “Maybe two less.”
“So, between eight and ten remaining to worry about.”
They were crashing through the leaves, Laura and Sam alternately stopping and firing behind them.
“Nine.” said Sam.
“Eight,” said Laura.
“Seven,” said Sam.
And then they stepped on ground that gave way or wasn’t there and slid headling through mud and leaves, tumbling to a tangled stop in a muddy trickle of a stream.
“Crap,” said Sam.
“Oooh, well said,” muttered Mai.
“Anything broken?” asked Sam.
“Aah,” muttered Laura, “shit. The cases.”
“The?” muttered Mai, as Sam’s hand stopped her from continuing.
Boom! went Laura’s rifle. Chick-chock. Sam’s did the same. Six. Five.
“Careful, Sam,” whispered Laura. “Our extra cartridges just dumped out into this muddy stream.
“Come, let’s get moving again,” said Sam, grabbing at a few shells as she started running again.
Laura did the same, and they handed them to Mai.
“Hold these,” said Laura. “Keep them in case we run out of good cartridges.”
“Do you think they’re still following us?” whispered Mai.
“I have no idea,” replied Sam. “After that fall I still haven’t figured out which way is up.”
“It’s the way away from the ground,” said a new voice in a distinctively Aztec accent.
“Icta!” cried Sam and Laura. “What are you doing here?”
“I have been trailing some Spanish spies,” said the Indian, “wondering what they could possibly be searching for in the Aztec lands they’ve been thrown out of. And have in the last few hours heard rumors of white women in the jungle, followed by shots ringing through the leaves from where the Spaniards were. And dead Spaniards, and a presumably dead Spaniard’s hand.
‘I said to myself, what white woman could be causing so much trouble this far inland? I followed, and I held my breath that it was my old friends Samantha and Laura Smith and so it was.
‘I don’t understand,” he continued, “how you managed to get so far inland without anyone hearing about it.”
“We didn’t,” said Sam. “We arrived inland intact, and now we’re on our way to the beach—and it appears that everyone knows exactly where we are.”
She scanned the jungle.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “They’re long behind, trying to decide, I think, whether it is worth it to lose more soldiers trailing a bunch of crazy women.”
“Hold this,” said Sam, handing her rifle to Icta, and pulling out her revolver.
Laura nodded, and handed her rifle to Mai. Both emptied their revolvers of all but two cartridges, and then placed the rest of the cartridges in their rifles.
“You came from the mountains?” asked Icta. “How in the world did you get there? Did you beach your ship on some peak?”
“No, we came in through an underground river from California,” said Sam.
“The Horn is still up in San Diego,” said Laura. “As soon as we figure out where we are, we can call it down to the nearest beach.”
“You came alone, the three of you?” asked Icta.
“There are some settlers up the mountain a ways,” said Sam. “They’ll need some assistance as they’re starting out.”
“Mostly they’ll need firearms,” said Laura. “And knowledge of what is good food and what is not, and how to handle the animals.”
“Settlers?” asked Icta. “How did you get settlers into the jungle?”
“Long story,” said Sam. “We’ll tell you on the way. I’d like to get out of here before the soldiers decide it is worth it to follow three crazy women.”
“Follow me to Tepic,” said Icta. “And I will do my best for your settlers. This is a strange place for white men to come, and not all will welcome them.”
“Not white,” said Mai. “We’re Chinese.”
“Tepic?” asked Laura as they went through the jungle. “What is the nearest port?”
“Zocotlec,” said Icta. “What the Spaniards called Santiago before they… left.”
“Your aid has not been forgotten, Sun and Moon,” he continued. “Not by me, nor my compatriots.”
“Don’t tell me,” said Mai. “You two helped out in the Spanish rebellion also? Do you seed rebellion wherever you go?”
“They seed la liberdad wherever they go,” said Icta, “the one word I will use from that language. Rebellion follows that seed as naturally as wind follows rain. What rebellion are you talking about?”
“We were slaves in San Diego,” said Mai. “Now we are not.”
“The ‘settlers’?” asked Icta.
“My fellow ‘slaves’,” said Mai.
“We shall see that they are well supplied before this night ends,” said Icta.
The jungle opened and they found themselves on a cliff overlooking a stepped city.
“See,” he said to them. “Tepic.”
Icta took the location of the Chinese settlers from them.
“Trust him,” said Sam. “We have been through a lot, him and Laura and I, and he understands slavery and freedom.”
Laura rested on a cot in the small mud ‘cottage’ while Sam and Mai talked. When Laura awoke, she rubbed her eyes and said:
“The Horn is on its way, or will be soon. They’ll be waiting for us at the beach by tomorrow’s sunset.”
Mai began to talk, and stuttered. Tears welled up in her eyes and she hugged them and she cried fat, wet tears.