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Wonder Tales-comic strip

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Half Half- Cornered!

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Half Half-out of towners

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Captain Black Hand in despair is taken over by Dom Orteguilla who knows just the thing to perk him up. Proxy is holed up in the Andes.

 

 

OVER THE ANDES ©

 

 

The three strangers in their ponchos, who led their mules by the mountain path looked weary and desperate.  They had travelled a week to reach their destination; and on their right was the sea and Huarez lay ahead of them. Bypassing it they took the southern route stealthily. Only when they reached the foot of Pastoruri Glacier, fifteen miles south of Huarez they stopped. The fiery evening sun had splashed the tropical glacier with a splash of  red. As murderous as blood and it was ominous to them till dusk mercifully fell. By the time they reached the ridge of Spatuletail,  they were surprised by scouts even though they had been forewarned about them. Even what seemed an impregnable rocky fort held surprises. These were their guide and they spoke a dialect, Quechua that one of the three could speak fairly well which made him the spokesman for the rest.  

Dom Orteguilla had led the party safely as he had promised them and they moved as stealthily though their trek could have been much easier had they tried by a ship. They were on a secret mission which none but the friar had any inkling about.  His good friend the Archbishop from his palace at Balboa had obliged him with necessary papers for one whom the Spanish would have loved to get their hands on.  The Prelate was a member of the secret society ‘Rainbow Warriors’ the aim of which was to undermine the very plundering act of the Spanish in the Americas. So was the friar who served as the technical adviser to him. Naturally the Spanish had sensed there were enemies among them while they mopped up the Inca empire root and all. Dom Orteguilla was playing with his own life and he had to be careful.

 Two months it took the trio to reach their final lap and they knew they were safe among Cordillera des Los. Just as they were told by the Mission at San Juan.  Dom Orteguilla only had to take care his friend didn’t go berserk or did something desperate. The pirate indeed was mentally fatigued and his desperation that showed in his listlessness and nightmares.  Captain Black Hand had let himself blindly into his care least mindful of his life or of their purpose that required such physical challenge.  As their guides led them from the ridge by lit torches into the camp deep in the thickets the pirate and Snake Eyes felt in their bones the friar had acted all along in good faith.

They were in Las Lobos for the night and camp didn’t promise much as the silent spectres that knew their distance and manners. They brought them food and showed places to sleep.  A place to sleep in was all that required. The lanterns around the central courtyard and a bonfire gave signs that the camp was occupied by people who were used to strangers. They were somewhat concerned for the third more than for anything else. The third traveller looked deadbeat and they looked at the two wondering if he needed special care. The friar dismissed them.

He knew his friend only needed rest.

Captain Black Hand was indeed desperate: he had lost his ship and a large chunk of his fortune. Captain Black Hand wondered why he had ever bothered to make a passage to Vera Cruz to break news to Dom Orteguilla who took the loss of his nephew none too kindly. ‘He deserved death for his devilry, but still he was in a state of innocence,’ was the first words what he spoke of Diabolo Diaz at the end of his mourning. The friar had avoided looking at his friend at first. During that phase he just sighed as though his life was no more a-winging with goodwill for the living and not wondering if his changing his call was indeed wise. He survived such doubts.  But the pirate of course was certain he had failed his host. Much worse was his certainty he had beggared his luck! Well if the monk’s silence was a reproach let it be so. He had himself put himself under his hands. He can have his pound of flesh.

Without his ships he didn’t any point to hang on. He had lost nao-nao at Cape Verde basin and he had seen his Rule of Thumb turn into a ghost ship. He had to consign it to oblivion since she had jinxed him. He could only explain the loss of his man to it. Snake Eyes the man from Memphis mourned for Jack Boots who was presumed dead.  A pirate who could do wonders with two artists of their calibre knew his days of piracy would be no more than robbing some old women in the dark or picking pockets at the fair grounds. The idea galled him and made his nights filled with nightmares. He had just let the Indian lead him wherever he wanted.

Dom Orteguilla had snapped out of his own sorrow to bring succour to Black Hand who seemed to need more at that moment. Only after he had seen that his friend had a hammock to sleep in he let out a smile as heartfelt as child told ‘the school is out’.

2.

Next day the friar woke up the Captain and gently told him what he was there for. If he heard it right he didn’t show it. He sat there across the hammock letting his legs dangle till Snake Eyes brought his shaving basin and razor. The valet spoke hardly till the pirate was spruced up and had his constitutional.  They ate on llama meat in stew with potatoes sliced on the side. Chunks of cuyes in boiled and mashed maize were a treat compared to their two month ration of salted alpaca strips and handfuls of roasted Quinoa that the Incas used to refer as “chisaya mama” or “mother of all grains”.  Chewing on fresh stock of cocoa leaves they stepped out.

The camp stood in a clearing in the midst of a forest and the thunderous din of a waterfall didn’t shock the pirate as much as a flag that stood stiffly in front of one of the huts. It was grander than rest and stood on an elevated ledge and the rainbow flag slung from a pole unmistakably stamped it as the house of the chief.  His name Sun Beam clearly established his authority. He might be down and make his bed with the outcasts and powerless and yet, they were warmed by the sun and he gave them their pride of place.

The friar caught the eye of the one who stood at the entry. They greeted stiffly and the doorkeeper in getting the nod from inside let them in. Snake Eyes stayed out.

Dom Orteguilla gently escorted the captain into the hall.

What struck the pirate as odd were those who stood in their colourful cloaks apart from the warriors. The nobles were cone-heads, which had been achieved as a mark of separation even as they were born. While their skulls were soft they were trussed up to misshape their heads. They surrounded the chief who was grave with his high cheekbones marking his looks as one who got respect.  Upon a nod from him the two came forward towards to take them for ‘Sun’s Benevolence’ It marked the descendent of the Sun giving a clutch of picchar or cocoa leaves for chewing. As they did the chief looked on as though he were pleased to see them that morning.

Having done the ceremonial greeting the friar handed the papers that he read with utmost seriousness. 

While he was thus busy the friar watched the royal person and frowned. The mark of the chief that signified the last scion of Manco Inca was missing. ‘So this was a serious business!” mused the monk. He as with the Archbishop were in cahoots with him. They wanted to install the legitimate heir of the Inca Empire back on the throne. Those who had the ear of the King of Spain were at that moment using their influence to check the conquistadors. The Holy See rightly foresaw the eternal calumny against the Church by their pride and zeal.  Future only judged the sword that they brandished. The sword was the Cross. But the King and the Church well knew only money and greed ruled the likes of  Pizarro and Diego de Almagro. Dom Orteguilla fully fell in with the idea and was assured that the good Christian King would step in. Till such time it was imperative that the chief was kept safely out of harm’s way.

 The friar and the nobles parleyed occasionally King Sun Beam giving some hints and directing when they hit some hiatus. Dom Orteguilla was astounded that a spy from the Spanish Captain had decamped with tapac- yauri the legendary staff along with two silver pins that the descendents of the Sun God wore; so was a girdle of jade and beryl with motifs that the reigning monarchs had worn.  Without these his claim to the throne was very weak indeed. If he had intended to establish his pre-eminence over all tribes such symbols as he had were crucial. The thief who stole them had stood by him only till a year ago. Had he known where his master was at the moment the Spanish would have swooped on the camp. The chief was too clever for them and had the aid of special agencies that an outsider didn’t know.

The host explained the situation and the monk called the pirate to his side. The monk had forewarned him that his name among them was EL Quipu. He was among them to call to account certain person on whom their host had an interest. Black Hand merely frowned and didn’t go further. He let himself led through his paces to the pleasure of the monk.

Introducing El Quipu the friar said he originally came from Heliopolis. The Sun connection was not lost on the chief and he practically beamed when the friar told him that he would serve his cause absolutely. 

Dom Orteguilla in return wanted the host that he repaid his service by suitable rewards.  A little later the friar urged the chief to show what was of immense interest to Black Hand. Only then he realized his attention to the proceedings he was being drawn in. He darted black looks at the arch conspirator and turned to the speaker.  The chief held out the list, which are a narrow strip folded till it was no more than square inch. He opened it and smoothed the creases. A smile curled around the royal lips. He asked, “ You know Idries Pasha?”

Captain Black Hand gave a start and nodded. He gave other clues that seemed to quickly bring the pirate to the present.  His eyes quickly became touched with danger and clarity. The chief held out the paper  yellowed with age. The Inca chief said, “ I have a score to settle with this man who wrote these words: “ Caution and underneath Abundant Caution. ” Even after so many years Black Hand had no difficulty to place the note.  Cartagena was a painful memory. Lucienta and her accomplices.   He glanced significantly at the friar. He knew the monk was hand in glove with the Inca king.

The handwritings were different so the pirate asked as though he didn’t get the drift. “ Oh Chief one of the name is no longer in circulation. So which one you have in mind?”

The chief was very certain, “Caution” and he said that the man was very much in that part of the Andes. The pirate took a deep breath and just muttered, “Proxy.”  No news had recently come as potent as that.  The chief explained that Quoyllur Rit’i ( Star Snow festival) was about to start and yatiris are collecting around the slopes of Colquepunku.

“Do you think you will recognize your man?”

“Sure” the pirate said with a finality, “ I shall not miss him this time.” Thus Proxy had once again crossed his path. He knew it was predetermined.

The Inca chief assured that he would foot the entire trek and his man would serve as his guide. The pirate didn’t entirely give in. He promised to give his reply in a couple of days. As they came out of the audience with the king the captain faulted the monk for getting him involved in a pure political intrigue. The monk soft-pedalled and argued that he hit upon the plan only after he had known that Proxy was indeed a loose cannon who needed to be stopped.

“Had you told me Proxy is around such and such place I could have gone and beat the hell out of him”. He didn’t need the entire Inca mob breathing down his neck.  

The monk kept silence and said quietly, “ Proxy stole part of Inca king’s ceremonial dress for nothing.”

The pirate stopped and looked at him quizzically.

“He has made himself as a reincarnation of Karajia,  a Chachapoyan Chief. Think of tapac-yauri, the staff that is the sign of divine favor!” The pirate looked stunned. “So what he stole makes sense. Is it not?” He gave a mirthless laugh and asked the friar, “ I will then have to get him past all his hangers on?” So Proxy was not the man he thought him to be. He was playing for high stakes.

The monk knew his chance. He tugged the edge of his poncho to say “Proxy is known by name Karajia . Of course King Sun Beam thinks he is a Pretender who needs to be stopped.”

Black Hand asked his whereabouts. The friar answered, “ Proxy shall be present for the coming festival. It is his chance to show himself at his best. No one can climb the Andes as effortless as he. It is how he shall keep his power over curanderos ( traditional healers).”

“Ah, I see it now,” the pirate exclaimed, “ I shall also go to the Star Snow festival. He shall be off his guard.”

Captain Black Hand knew it would be his best bet to confront with his nemesis. It was time he had closed his door with the past.

He sent word through the friar to tell the chief to count on him.

 

3.

The Inca Chief could not spare Dom Orteguilla and Captain Black Hand was sure he could manage himself fine. He also to prove he meant it asked Snake Eyes to keep himself occupied till he came. The friar assured that his valet could benefit from his break. “There are a whole lot of traditional healers and medicinal plants to enlarge his bag of tricks.” The pirate could appreciate the fact. 

Before he set out King Sun Beam called the pirate and the friar for a private audience. He addressed the friar and said, “ If you judge your enemy from your past you shall almost certainly fail.” The pirate didn’t understand. The Child of Inti explained that the tribes followed the Pretender because of something substantial. The pirate waited. The son of Inti thought he had earned their admiration by his surefootedness. In their eyes he is the ‘Conqueror of Cloud Peak’ since he never lost his step however treacherous or high it was’.

After the king sacrificed a cock to Inti, the Sun god and asked his spiritual counsel and he advised him what El Quipu needed was ‘a gentle push from the South.’ So the soothsayer brought a boy of fourteen whom he said was favored of the local diety ‘Huacas’.

Kon-titi came next day. The same day the pirate set out.

Black Hand was only accompanied by Kon-titi an imp of infinite mischief whom the chief had assured was all for the best. The boy was adept in all things except for his music. He attended to his master and guided him through the mountain passes. He also made his meals quite tasteful and knew how to find the right places for their rests.

The pirate found his playing maracas quite trying. “Why do you make my nerves in all knots, boy?” he asked the boy on the third day and he said sweetly,  “I am practising.”

The pirate didn’t know what to say. The boy added, “ I can be perfect if I practised enough.” The pirate sighed. Their destination was Pecari Tampu now known as Pecaritambo,16 miles south of Cuzco. The word was brought to the Inca chief that the Pretender was holed up in a hamlet close to Cuzco.   When the guide said in Spanish that the Pretender was not what he thought to be but one who was full of cunning, he snapped, “He may be Pretender to you. But he is real to me. I don’t thrust my pig-sticker at shadows”. The boy wasn’t in the least impressed.

The boy after a couple of minutes asked if he had his weapon concealed. The pirate nodded. The boy just stuck his hand out.

Next instant the knife had fallen out of nowhere on the rock with a clank. The pirate could only watch it with consternation. “What have you done?” The boy said nothing. He picked it up and gave to the pirate who dumbly put it away.

Only went they passed through Huancayo in the Mantaro valley they faced some intimations of their vulnerable position. Huancos hated Incas and the boy took care of their passage with ease.  The boy led him through jungles and valleys and mountain passes that put the pirate on a high and one month later the only complaint that he had was ,“ Boy show me a single soul with whom I can make an intelligent conversation, and it has to be in Spanish or in Arabic.”

“But I speak to you in Spanish, do I not?”

The pirate would have snapped a few choicest curses at the whippersnapper but he checked himself. He was too much of a gentle spirit and he knew he would wilt like a mimosa if he were transplanted to the regions that he was used to. It would be impossible for him to appreciate what he was precisely undergoing after a month he had taken leave of the friar. So he said wearily, “ I meant man to man talk of ships and maps and such like.”

“So these mountains or clouds speak nothing to you, master?” Captain Black Hand grunted and wearily let himself out of the saddle from his mule, Puchi. They walked a couple of miles in silence and the sun after a long spell of rain had come through. The guide pointed to the glorious sunshine that scattered jewels all over the serrated edges of ferns. “Doesn’t the sun gladden our hearts?” Looking at the gloomy face of the elder the boy said, “ It does mine any way.” A little later he added as though he wanted to keep the pirate occupied, “Suppose rains from the jungles just dropped, it would still speak to me.”

As if in answer air masses rising from above the Ayacucho Jungle knotted up and sent a splatter of rain upon them. It was unusual and its severity sent the two to the lee of a rocky ledge. Kon-titi would have gone on a rhapsody as to the showers of Andes but the pirate wrapped his shawl about him. Only the thought his nemesis was walking free somewhere down in the valley made him give rein to his rising irritation.

The two strangers arrived in Peccari Tampu by dusk. By the torchlight 

They knew it was festival time as though the coming annual festival had given a new life to the villagers. The inn was more like an adobe walled all around. Puchi and Rose were safely tethered in a barn away from the cold. They were shown to their cubicle with a narrow window that the host said was for their own protection.  Nights were chilly and cold winds were merciless. They looked around expecting trouble but the peasants were more for jollity than for rough play.

They came  down and quietly were lost among the guests.

In the courtyard were guests sitting about the bonfire and chattering. The shapes of headdresses and shawls had blotted much of details and the pirate could pass unnoticed among the compesinos. The pirate didn’t see a strange figure who caught the notice of Kon-titi and the boy softly turned towards him. With a gentle nod the boy tugged at the shoulder of the pirate to say he was wanted elsewhere.  It struck the pirate odd.

Black Hand sat there and turned inwardly to wallow in self pity. He realized it had lost its tang. Soon the guide came back excited to say that Proxy was in another part of the town and he knew where he was lodged.

The pirate felt elated. He stood up and said, “Come boy, we will pay him a visit.” He felt for his 9’’ knife that he called a pig-sticker. The handle was mother of pearl inlaid with brass wires spiralling around to give a good grip. The steel was well tempered with a serrated edge that left a deadly signature on the victim. How he took it out without entangling in his vitals was an art in itself. He was well protected he assured himself.

As they let themselves out and took to the shadows someone from the cover of darkness gave a signal, a two note tweet-tweet’ the last long. To his surprise Kon-titi answered with the same. ‘Lope’ the Mestizo boy was for long on the tracks of the Pretender. The pirate in a low voice asked the guide how he knew precisely of his arrival. Kon-titi merely dismissed it as not worth mentioning. Upon persisting to tell he said,  “ His king had his own ways and he was only one of his agents.”

Lope spoke of the Pretender as one to be handled with extreme caution. The pirate snapped, “ That is what we are here for. ”

The newcomer looked uncomprehendingly at the speaker who explained, “Mum is the word- Caution. ” Lope took out costumes for them. The pirate’s dress showed that of a condenado, a lost soul given under the care of a ukuku. It appealed to his sense of irony. The guide had the bear costume of a ukuku.

Kon-titi explained to the pirate the Pretender was out. “Even still the better news is that he has left ‘tapac-yauri’ the golden staff behind”. The pirate understood the idea was to filch the symbols of power especially his staff and give it back to King Sun Beam.  It satisfied them but it still left to him to settle the score with the fellow. The pirate fell in with the plan.

 The house where Proxy was lodged seemed more like a shrine with tapers lit. The tiled roof and walls of stone blocks showed he was in far better circumstances than the pirate. The structure had two stories. The lower storey was more like a hall where the peasants and medicine men came to meet the Pretender and upper floor was his personal quarters. There were two strapping fellows in traditional costume and they just dozed.

Lope climbed into the room through a shuttered window on the rear and the pirate waited in bated breath. His guide showed no trace of anxiety and only when he heard the sound of a scuffle and a growl he moved with lightening speed to the door where the guards were stretched out. It was obvious they were knocked out with some drugs. The pirate also ran after Kon-titi and ran up the stairs to see two Indians wearing woollen masks hurtling through the door followed by a screaming Lope.  Black Hand knew that they were still holding on to the golden staff that somehow slowed down their speed. The pirate quickly put his foot out that sent the thieves stumbling down. Their booty lay in their wraps somewhat undone. Kon-titi picked it up helped by Lope.

The pirate was completely engaged with the two brutes who were trying to keep themselves free. Meanwhile Kon-titi and Lope  had made for the open through a window and they escaped into the dark night.

The pirate found the going tough being tackled by the desperados who wanted to make a getaway.  Desperately he warded off the clawing hands that were going for his eyes and with inhuman power of will managed to get his hand free. In a trice he had his knife out and he saw a wooden club coming from somewhere and knocking his one assailant down. Before he could strike he heard four pairs of hands wrenching the other.  The pirate quickly decided use of a knife was unnecessary. As he was about to put it away he saw the man who stood surrounded by some peasants.

His eyes met that of his foe. Proxy was alive and well. Only that he had become all the more dangerous since those who were with were totally reverential as though he were a god come in flesh.

Proxy stared at the masked figure and asked in Spanish, “You do not belong here. Why the costume?”

The Pirate said, “I am a lost soul, and on the look out for doing some good.”  Proxy didn’t believe. He asked what he was doing in his house and he answered that he saw two fellows going in. “So I followed them as a matter of caution. Caution is a good thing no?” Proxy didn’t get the joke. Black Hand instantly saw him go wild with eyes rolling and he knew why.

Proxy knew why there were unwelcome visitors to his house. He hollered at his followers to detain him while he ran up to check.

Black Hand had no time to make an orderly exist. He had to brave the milling crowd.  Before they formed a wall he flashed his pig-sticker and threatened to carve them all. The peasants moved aside. He strode right through them wielding his knife in an arc and with his free hand shoved those who came closer. Once he was in the dark he heard shouts from inside ‘thief, thief !  So Proxy had found out he was robbed. The pirate was past caring. Next time it should be one on one. He had located his enemy and he felt the thrill of a chase looming ahead of him.

Then only he realized that he was alone.      

Black Hand went back o the inn and plopped on his pallet and soon Lope and Kon-titi sidled closer to say that the mission was successful. The pirate warned that the items were too dangerous to be left there.

Kon-titi smiled and assured that they had already passed on and the matter was out of their hands.

Black Hand was silent. His guide asked what were his plans. He said wearily, “ My mission has just begun.” He told him to go back if he wanted to and the boy shook his head.

“Suit yourself.” He went to sleep even as the guide blew out the candle and turned in.( to be concluded)

4.

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