Charlie Reich pressed briskly up the narrow road. He was the breed of man, built like a fort, who punished the ground with every step. The increasing elevation was sapping the fortitude of his expedition. He was tired, but he refused to show it.
Indifferently, Charlie glanced at the tiring group. The team was diverse: a collection of intellectuals and professionals. Mentally, they were well-suited to the mission. Physically, they lacked. Like a penguin in the high desert, they were grossly outside their natural habitat. Hordes of books were replaced by a multiplicity of wildlife. They had traded fifteenth floor offices for towering precipices. In the place of monotonous meetings were the rigors of reaching the Huanapua city of Echu-Quo-Mandu.
"A little further." Charlie exhorted in his usual, forceful tone. Everything he did was crisply defined, every movement was calculated, every word was definitive. Purpose was his second language, his rule of life.
"Charlie," Dr. Perez clamored through staggered gasps, "Could we lighten the pace for those of us with a bit less youth? I'm all for moving quickly, but my legs seem to be in protest." Dr. Solomon Perez, a judicious medical doctor, displayed his age in every stride. His body had little left to give on the journey though his heart was fixed on finishing.
"This trail only gets easier." Charlie assured.
"When is that?"
"On the way down of course." Charlie stated as he peeled two packs from his back. Heavy sweat had nearly adhered the material permanently to his shirt. Admittedly, he craved a break as well. "Ms. Dimolfetto, would you like to carry your pack now?"
"Not particularly," Ashlynn Dimolfetto huffed. Two shallow ruts stalked her up the trail. Each was formed by the bags she couldn't muster the will to carry. Instead, she dragged them. The bags were filthy, molested by every root and rock on the path. Ashlynn wasn't weak. She was petite, barely three inches over five feet. Her skill as an anthropologist far outweighed her contributions on the journey.
"I can take her pack if need be." Dr. Perez offered. "You've been carrying it since this morning, I'll take a turn – it's not too far, right?"
Charlie scoffed, "It'll be fine." Stepping to the edge of a nearby cliff, he glanced haphazardly over. His directional skills were keenly attuned to the surroundings. The elevation was right. Their direction was correct. They were close.
Had it not been for their exasperated expressions the scene would have been picturesque. The landscape swirling about them was a mixture of cascading waterfalls, imposing rock faces, and vivid greenery. Thick foliage effortlessly swallowed the mountains, losing its control as the peaks pressed higher. It was breathtaking, yet viewed through the lens of exhaustion it seemed to lose its enchantment.
"Break's over," Charlie commanded, "We need to keep moving if we're going to make it to the city by noon sun." Ashlynn and Dr. Perez struggled to move. Their minds agreed to continue. Their bodies shouted in protest. Unwilling to quit, the three prepared to press forward. "Is the second party in sight?"
"I haven't seen them since early this morning." Ashlynn weakly responded. "How fast can a caravan of llamas move up a mountain anyways?"
"With Jabez at the helm, not fast enough." Charlie groaned. "We'll take care of introductions before the caravan arrives." His boots dug deeply into the path. "That's probably what Jabez wanted anyways."
His spirit pulled the team forward like a steam locomotive. One last push would be all that was necessary. When they arrived they weren't sure how they would be greeted. The government's approval had been garnished, but no permit could stop an ill-intending arrow. Their only contact was an American missionary who had lived among the people for several years. His assurance was their only assurance.
Every step was an exercise. Casual conversation had ceased at a much lower elevation. No one dared waste their breath as they trudged along in silence. Charlie vigorously led them. Dr. Perez force himself forward as he attempted to enjoy the view. Ashlynn strained to keep pace.
A few more bends in the trail would bring them face to face with Echu-Quo-Mandu. Little was known of the city or its people. Modern government, always fearful of tainting a native culture, refused to get involved. Their appetite for information was insatiable, but they would not pursue it themselves. Albeit the approach was double minded. They allowed what they would not allocate.
"Charlie," Ashlynn called from the rear of the group, "I think we are very, very close."
"Possibly," Charlie responded, "We can't say for sure though. Won't know until we see the city."
"No. We're close." Ashlynn argued. Her confidence seemed to swell with every word.
A tinge of frustration rose inside Charlie. She had been a liability on this trip, not an asset. Now she was insistent on their location. Charlie, unabated by her comments, pressed even harder up the trail. Ringing in his ear was her faintly talking behind him. She had drifted nearly thirty feet back, just far enough for him to ignore her.
"Charlie!" Ashlynn called, "We're almost there! It's literally right around the corner! I know it!" She chuckled, allowing a hint of certainty to leak into her tone.
"Ms. Dimolfetto," Charlie retorted, face forward and pressing onward, "we likely have at least one more hour at this pace. Is it close? Relatively. Are we there? Barely."
"Let me be clear!" Charlie reacted heatedly, "I don't want to hear what-" Wheeling around to shoot a venomous look down the trail the reality knocked the words out of his mouth. Charlie sealed his lips as quickly as he opened them, containing his spite. Ashlynn meandered up the trail. Accompanying her were three dark skinned boys wrapped in wool parkas.
The oldest boy cradled one of the filthy bags in his arms. The other two boys were fighting over the second bag, as if their chivalry would gain them something. Ashlynn continued to walk, donning a sweetly arrogant smirk. She tried without success to contain her laughter as she saw the anger seething from Charlie's every pore. He was wrong. He hated being wrong.
"They said we're very close." Ashlynn victoriously cooed.
"Wonderful." Charlie flatly responded. Spitefully, he slid Ashlynn's pack off his back and dropped it in the dirt. "Glad to see you're free to carry your own load now."
"I'll take that for you." Dr. Perez assured, trying to play the role of innocent bystander.
"That's alright," Ashlynn said as she struggled to lift it to her back, "it isn't too far anyways."
"How much longer then?" Charlie inquired. "Can your little buddies tell us that?" She shrugged, "And how in the world did they get to the back of the group without me seeing them?"
Ashlynn chuckled, "They were playing by a little stream below us when I noticed them. When they noticed me they immediately climbed up and took my bags. I'm not certain of their names. All they knew how to say was, 'welcome, welcome, you are close.' I'm assuming they're between eight and thirteen years old. Healthy. Strangely courteous. That's it."
A stranger's hand suddenly rested on Charlie's shoulder. Instinctively he spun around fluidly drawing his knife. It wasn't wise to surprise Charlie when he was in the midst of a heated moment. In those moments he did not think. He did not freeze. He did not weigh his options. He immediately reacted. Luckily, he never overreacted.
"Welcome to Echu-Quo-Mandu, I'm Reed." Reed explained with a shocked look painted across his face. "I would prefer not to be butchered. Would you mind putting that away?"
"The next person to surprise me is getting hurt." Charlie warned as he attempted to compose himself.
"Sorry to sneak up on you like that." Reed apologized. "Did you say these three boys were playing when you found them?"
"They really seemed like they were having fun." Ashlynn happily answered.
A stern looked appeared on Reed's face as he began to scold them under his breath. The words he spoke were indecipherable, but the message he was communicating was obvious. They were in trouble. His expression lightened as the boys seemed to apologize. It was impossible to know without speaking their language.
"These three boys were supposed to be waiting for you." Reed explained. "I apologize for their absence. They live with myself and the other Christians in Echu-Quo-Mandu. They're good boys, but boys nonetheless." Reed regained his usual joyous air, "I haven't formally introduced myself! My name is Reed Martin, missionary to the Huanapua people here in the Andes Mountains. I'll be your guide, translator, host, and friend while you're here."
"Charlie Reich," Charlie gruffly stated as he clasped Reed's hand, "I'll be overseeing everything the team does and am responsible for their productivity and safety. Behind me is Dr. Perez. He is a medical doctor who's going to be assisting the people if I understand correctly. Ashlynn Dimolfetto is our cultural anthropologist. She studies people I suppose."
"Wonderful," Reed resounded, "This isn't everyone is it? It can't be."
Dr. Perez interjected, "No, we have a caravan following, mostly my supplies with them."
"Our high maintenance friend Jabez Walther is leading them." Charlie grunted. "They'll be a bit later than us. He's our archaeologist. If there's one thing he loves it's digging. Digging into our personal lives, into our wallets, and of course old stuff."
"An archaeologist," Reed mumbled with a concerned look, "I-I don't know how well – actually – no I don't know. What was he hoping to do?"
"Dig, I guess." Charlie spat disapprovingly. He refused to hide his disdain for Jabez. "You'll have to ask him when he gets here. He loves to talk, mainly about himself."
An awkward silence covered the group. No one volunteered to agree with Charlie, yet they all refused to disagree. Reed struggled with any trace of gossip. He hold his tongue for courtesy's sake.
"If everyone is ready to listen I would love to tell you about where you're headed." Reed diverted with a grin. "I am a preacher. We love to talk."
"I've been fascinated with the Huanapua people since I was invited on this expedition." Dr. Perez concurred.
"First things first. Don't call them the Huanapua people." Reed kindly corrected. "Their name literally means 'tomb people' so when you call them the Huanapua people you're calling them the 'tomb people people.' Make sense?" The group nodded affirmatively. Their interest was evident, even Charlie allowed some to show.
"Can we continue this conversation while hiking?" Charlie queried. He was still determined to make it by noon sun, and this episode had slowed them down significantly.
"Yes," Reed quickly agreed, "follow me." He hesitated before pressing on. "Are you all willing to entertain tonight? If the journey has really taken it out of you I understand."
"It shouldn't be an issue." Charlie replied.
"Mand Ahppa-Irta will be glad to hear that."
"Is that one of the other Christian's in the village?" Ashlynn probed with eagerness. "I'm very interested to hear about their conversions, their struggles – there's so much to learn."
"I wouldn't call him a Christian." Reed squeaked out. "He's an important leader in the tribe. Everyone respects him. We have a very healthy relationship." He sheepishly grinned. "No pressure. Ahppa-Irta is the head of the Huanapua, and he's requested your presence."