Pedro managed to follow the path in the truck for half a kilometer, but then reached a washed-out arroyo he could not pass. Gaspar banged on the cab of the truck and said something in Spanish that Wylie translated as “close enough.” They left the truck and followed Gaspar along the arroyo to the foot of rugged cliffs dripping with green vegetation. Gaspar carefully examined the base of the cliff face and turned to the right, beckoning the others to follow. Two hundred meters along, he walked toward the cliff as though to begin climbing it, but stopped short there and disappeared. Moments later, he reappeared, beaming broadly. He had found the entrance to the limestone caverns.
A wall of stone screened the opening. To enter they had to squeeze between two perpendicular rock walls and slip into a gap the size of a washbasin. Large rocks that had fallen from the cliff face surrounded the entrance. They prepared their headlamps and flashlights, and Larry wound rope around his upper body. Pedro carried the crowbar, and Gaspar secured the shovel to his back. Mercy easily slipped through the opening and found herself at the beginning of a long, sloping corridor, quite wide, but uneven, and bristling with stalactites and stalagmites that formed glistening curtains as far as her headlamp could cast its light. She moved forward, found a bench of rock and waited there for the others.
Larry soon entered, followed by Wylie, both cursing a too-rich diet that had expanded their waistlines and forced them to navigate the opening like corks pulled from a wine bottle. Pedro and Gaspar came next, and Gaspar took the large flashlight and illuminated the path downward. In the darkened echo chamber of the cylindrical entrance passageway, they felt their way along, suddenly warmed by the constant temperature of thirteen degrees Celsius.
After descending thirty meters, Gaspar flashed his light along the high wall to his left and showed an array of petroglyphs in ochre and red that looked as fresh as the day six hundred years ago when they were first painted: the sun with expanded rays, hummingbirds, monkeys, llamas, human figures with arms outstretched, spiders and square-headed people marched across the limestone walls. A row of beautifully formed but indecipherable symbols in red, yellow and black scrolled down the wall, leading the eye to a large chamber that dissolved into darkness. The ancient dust under their feet sent up puffs of powder as they made their way into the chamber. The only words spoken were exclamations of awe.
Gaspar walked into the chamber and shone the bright light against a row of large niches cut into the wall. Mercy gasped. Here were dead people arrayed like pins in a bowling alley. They even resembled large bowling pins: squat, pear-shaped, cream-colored bundles carefully wrapped in cloth. Mercy walked closer and played her headlamp over the bundles. Each one had an intricate symbol painted on its front, topped by crude features that resembled a smiley face.
—Absolutely fantastic! I have never seen anything like this. It is probably one of the best, most pristine group of mummified remains ever assembled. See, there they have painted a face that likely resembles the ancestor inside. And at the end there, that mummy has definitely been rewrapped. It supports the conjecture that their worship involved caring for their ancestors after they had been preserved. Very different from the Egyptians.
Gaspar moved about the large chamber, shining his light to highlight faces and paintings of warrior like figures that covered the walls.
—What do you think? asked Wylie. Are those warriors here to frighten intruders and ward off evil spirits?
—I don’t know about you, but I am frightened by the whole thing, offered Mercy, as she illuminated one of the bundles to show the figure inside through the thin cloth. It was a fearsome sight.
The knees were drawn up to the chest, the arms positioned so the hands pressed against the cheeks. Cords of hemp held the hands in place. The climate of the cave retarded but did not eliminate the deterioration of mummified flesh. The lips and nose were gone, exposing a gaping mouth with bright and perfect teeth, drawn in either a grin or a look of horror. The shoulders and arms remained covered with fabrics of either cloth or leather. The hands were wrinkled and gray, but retained their original shape—with prominent fingernails.
Mercy looked at the figure as though transfixed. There was something familiar about the face in front of her. She remembered.
—My God! This looks just like the Munch’s painting The Scream.
Wylie and Larry, who had also been examining the illuminated figure, agreed.
—Just like, they said. Extraordinary. A small world.
Larry pushed all other concerns away as he examined the group of figures assembled in the cavern. It was, he knew, a major archeological find. Undamaged by grave robbers and thieves, the wall drawings and the large number of figures located here would provide scientists with valuable material for years. Wylie joined him, and Larry shared insights with his companion. Wylie counted all the mummies he could see. There were twenty-three.
Pedro joined Mercy and they looked at the petroglyphs, which Mercy sketched in her journal. She’d had enough of dead people.
Pedro’s dimming headlamp indicated that his batteries were wearing out. Mercy kept her light focused on his hands as he changed batteries. As they resumed their examinations, Wylie’s flashlight also dimmed. He checked his watch and saw they had been in the cave for more than two hours.
Before he could suggest cutting their visit short, he heard, in the corridor behind them, the sound of a body crashing to the ground, followed by loud Spanish curses. Instantly exhilaration at their archaeological discoveries evaporated, and the Cypher group in the great chamber was on the alert. They dimmed their lights and looked in direction of the sound and curses. In the sudden darkness, the feeling of danger was palpable. Wylie and Larry bumped into each other, and Pedro felt his way to a niche, pulling Mercy with him. All remained quiet, listening.
The light from military issue torches stabbed into the darkness. The leader who Wylie shot in the leg and three soldiers were silhouetted against light playing off the marble walls. Those in the chamber saw that the leader held his pistol and the soldiers’ rifles pointed haphazardly into the darkness ahead as they stumbled along the obstacle strewn pathway toward them.
How the hell did they find us? wondered Wylie as he and Larry shuffled quietly through the ancient dust, feeling their way farther into the chamber, along a wall, away from the soldiers. Wylie heard a click as Larry checked his pistol and kneeled in the dust, presenting a smaller target. Wylie thought that was an excellent idea and crouched beside his friend, wishing he still had his rifle, wishing he had shot the leader through the heart and not the thigh. Beams from the soldiers’ flashlights penetrated the chamber, playing along the walls, showing the ancient mummies, discovering the outlines of fresh footsteps on the dusty ground.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish