There was no escape.
Crashing through the misty jungle, Francisco de Almagro had long given up all prayer of ever outrunning the hunters who dogged his trail. Panting, he crouched along the thin path and caught his breath. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. He still wore his Dominican robe, black wool and silk, but it was stained and torn. His Incan captors had stripped him of all possessions, except for his robe and cross. The tribal shaman had warned the others not to touch these talismans from his “foreign” god, afraid of insulting this stranger’s deity.
Though the heavy robes ill suited his flight through the dense, cloud-draped jungle of the upper Andes, the young friar still refused to shed his raiment. They had been blessed by Pope Clement when Francisco had first been ordained, and he would not part with them. But that did not mean he couldn’t alter them to suit his situation better.
He grabbed the hem of his garment and ripped it to his thighs.
Once his legs were free, Francisco listened to the sounds of pursuit. Already the call of the Incan hunters grew louder, echoing along the mountain pass behind him. Even the screeching cries of the disturbed monkeys from the jungle canopy overhead could not mask the rising clamor of his captors. They would be upon him soon.
The young friar had only one hope left—a chance at salvation—not for himself, but for the world.
He kissed the torn edge of his robe and let it drop from his fingers. He must hurry.
When he straightened too quickly, his vision darkened for a heartbeat. Francisco grabbed the bole of a jungle sapling, struggling not to fall. He gasped in the thin air. Small sparks danced across his vision. High up in the mountainous Andes, the air failed to fill his lungs adequately, forcing him to rest frequently, but he could not let shortness of breath stop him.
Shoving off the tree, Francisco set off once again down the trail, stumbling and weaving. The sway in his gait was not all due to the altitude. Before his scheduled execution at dawn, he had suffered a ritualistic bloodletting and been forced to consume a draught of a bitter elixir—chicha, a fermented drink that had quickly made the ground under his feet wobble. The sudden exertion of running from his captors heightened the drug’s effect.
As he ran, the limbs of the jungle seemed to reach for him, trying to trap him. The path seemed to tilt first one way, then the other. His heart hammered in his throat; his ears filled with a growing roar, washing away even the calls of his pursuers. Francisco stumbled out of the jungle and almost toppled over a cliff’s edge. Far below, he discovered the source of the thunderous rumbling—frothing white waters crashing over black rocks.
A part of his mind knew this must be one of the many tributaries that fed the mighty UrabambaRiver, but he could not dwell on topography. Despair filled his chest, squeezing his heart. The chasm lay between him and his goal. Panting, Francisco leaned his hands on his scraped knees. Only then did he notice the thin, woven-grass bridge. It spanned the chasm off to the right.
“Obrigado, meu Deus!” he thanked his Lord, slipping into Portuguese. He had not spoken his native language since first taking his vows in Spain. Only now, with tears of frustration and fear flowing down his cheeks, did he fall back upon his childhood tongue.
Pushing up, he crossed to the bridge and ran his hands over the braided lengths of ichu grass. A single thick cord stretched across the width of river below, with two smaller ropes, one on each side, to assist in balance. If not for his current state, he might have appreciated the engineering feat of the bridge’s construction, but now all his thoughts dwelt on escape—putting one foot in front of the other, maintaining his balance.
All his hopes lay in reaching the altar atop the next peak. As they did many of the mountains of the region, the Incas revered and worshiped this jungle-fringed spire. But to reach his goal, Francisco needed first to cross this chasm, then climb out of the cloud forest to the crag’s rocky escarpment above.
Would he have enough time?
Turning to listen once again for the sounds of pursuit, Francisco could hear nothing but the crashing tumble of the river below. He had no idea how far behind the hunters remained, but he imagined they were closing the distance quickly. He dared not tarry or cower from the drop below.
Francisco ran a sweating palm over the stubble of his shaven scalp, then grasped one of the two support ropes of the bridge. He squeezed his eyes closed for a moment and grabbed the other cable. With the Lord’s Prayer on his lips, he stepped onto the bridge and set off across the chasm. He refused to look down, instead fixing his eyes on the bridge’s end.
After an endless time, he felt his left foot strike stone. Sagging in relief, he clambered off the bridge and onto solid rock. He almost fell to his knees, ready to kiss and bless the earth, but a sharp call barked out behind him. A spear struck deep into the loam near his heel. Its shaft thrummed from the impact.
Francisco froze like a startled rabbit, then another cry shouted forth. Glancing behind him, he saw a single hunter standing on the far side. Their eyes met briefly across the chasm.
Predator and prey.
Under a headdress of azure and red feathers, the man grinned at him. He wore thick chains of gold. At least, Francisco prayed it was gold. He shuddered.
Not hesitating, Francisco slipped a silver dagger from inside his robe. The weapon, stolen from the shaman, had been his means of escape. It must now serve him again. He grabbed one of the bridge’s balancing ropes. He would never have time to hack through the main trunk of the span, but if he could sever the side ropes, his pursuers would have difficulty crossing. It might not stop them, but it could gain him some time.
His shoulders protested as he sawed at the dried-grass braid. The ropes seemed to be made of iron. The man called out to him, speaking calmly in his heathen language. The friar understood none of his words, but the menace and promise of pain were clear.
Renewed fear fueled Francisco’s muscles. He dug and sliced at the rope while hot tears streaked his muddy face. Suddenly, the rope severed under his blade, snapping away. One end grazed his cheek. Instinctively, he reached a hand to touch the injury. His fingers came back bloody, but he felt nothing.
Swallowing hard, he turned to the second support rope. Another spear struck the rock at the cliff’s edge and fell away into the chasm. A third followed. Closer this time.
Francisco glanced up. Four hunters now lined the far side of the chasm. The newest hunter held a fourth spear, while the first hunter deftly strung a bow. Time had run out. Francisco eyed the untouched rope support. It was death to stay there. He would have to hope that severing the one braid would slow them enough.
Turning, he sped back into the jungle on the far side of the chasm. The path climbed steeply, straining his legs and chest. Here the trees were less thick, the canopy less dense. As he struggled, the forest grew thinner with each hard-earned league. While glad to see the jungle begin to thin, he knew the lack of foliage also made him an easier target for the hunters. With each step, he expected an arrow to feather his back.
So close… Lord, do not forsake me now.
He refused to look ahead, concentrating on the ground beneath his feet. He fought to place one foot after the other. Suddenly light burst around him, as if the Lord Himself had pushed aside the trees to shine His Glory down upon him. Gasping, he raised his head. Even such a simple movement was difficult. In a single step, the jungle was behind him. Raw sunlight from the dawning sun blazed across the red and black stones of the barren peak.
He was too weak even for a prayer of thanks. Scrambling up through the last of the brush, he used his hands and
feet to fight for the summit. It must happen there. At their holy altar.
Crying now, but deaf to his own sobs, he crawled the final distance to the slab of granite. Reaching the stone altar, he collapsed back upon his heels and raised his face to the heavens. He cried out, not in prayer, but in simple acknowledgment that he yet lived, casting his voice for all to hear.
His call was answered. The sharp cries of hunters again echoed up from the pass below. They had crossed the chasm and renewed their pursuit.
Francisco lowered his face from the blue skies. Around him, spreading to all horizons, were the countless peaks of the Andes. Some were snow-tipped, but most were as barren as the one upon which he knelt. For a moment, Francisco could almost understand the Incas’ worship of these mountain heights. Here among the clouds and skies, one was closer to God. A sense of timelessness and a promise of eternity seemed to ring forth in the heavy silence. Even the hunters grew hushed—either from respect for the mountain or from a desire to sneak upon their prey unawares.
Francisco was too tired to care.
His gaze settled upon the one other type of peak that shared these heights. Below, to the west, were two smoldering mountains, volcanic caldera, twin craters staring up at the same morning skies. From here, the shadowed pair were like two blasted and cursed eyes.
He spat in their direction and raised a fist with his thumb thrust between his two fingers in a ward against evil.
Francisco knew what lay within those warm valleys. From his mountaintop altar, he christened the twin volcanoes. “Ojos el de Diablo,” he whispered… the Devil’s eyes.
Shivering at the sight, he turned his back on the view. He could not do what must be done while staring at those eyes. He now faced the east and the rising sun.
Kneeling before the blaze of glory, he reached within his robe and slipped out the cross that hung from around his neck. He touched the warm metal against his forehead. Gold. Here was the reason the Spaniards had struggled through these foreign jungles—the dream of riches and wealth. Now their lust and greed would damn them all.
Francisco turned the crucifix and kissed the golden figure upon its surface. This was why he had come here. To bring the word of the Lord to these savages—and now his cross was the only hope for all the world. He brushed a finger along the back of the cross, fingering the etchings he had carefully carved into the soft gold.
May it save us all, he prayed silently, and nestled the cross back into his robes, resting it near his heart.
Francisco raised his eyes to the dawn. He had to be certain the Incas never took the cross from him. Though he had reached one of the Incas’ sacred sites—this natural mountaintop altar—one final act was required of him to ensure the cross’s safety.