Them Thar Hills

Horror movie panic set in; he was walking towards a living cliche – traveller falls foul of locals – yet an English sense of embarrassment prevented him from turning tail, banshee screaming or picking up a rock. There was nothing silly about defence or escape, but what if he was wrong? B-movie paranoia and latent xenophobia distorting a fruit knife and cricket bat? 

The two worked as a team; Hector raised his hand that shone and a smile flickered; as cruelty brought the smile to a leer, the arm rose from a wave to a swing. The blade lashed through the air and he leapt back, but Arturo’s synchronised swinging club caught him low, smashing his knee and flipping his legs in the air. 

He landed flat on his backpack, with shocked gasp and juddering ribs. The two amigos paused above him, sneers confident in their upper hand. This is it, he realised; half your life you’re right, half you’re wrong, but you only discover which too late. Even worse, the cliche really was true – fuck/shit would be the last words in his head.

The rock bounced off the side of Hector’s head; cartoon stars with real life blood splatter. Another flew through the air and hit Arturo’s knuckles, hard enough to drop the bat with a yelp. The bandits looked up the slope as another stone bounced off Arturo’s chest pushing him back a few steps. 

He followed their gaze up above the trail, to see the silhouette of a man against the glare of the sun, steaming down the slope towards them. The sight blew the blood lust out of his assailant’s sails; Laurel and Hardy forgot their prey, turned and fled, further stones landing at their heels as they ran down the path. Were they leaving him to a fate worse than they could inflict? Who could scare them enough to forgo their prize?

GULLIBLE WILLINGNESS TO BELIEVE IN THE UNBELIEVABLE HAD NEAR BROUGHT HIM DEATH

The answer was a boy, not more than 15, mountain tanned, with the lean, wiry stance of a hill goat. His saviour stepped out the light and offered his hand with a cheery grin. 

“I am Julian,” the boy said, pulling him to his feet. They looked each other up and down, as he teetered and winced. He felt blood running down his cheek from Hector’s blade and his right leg buckled from Arturo’s club. “Your leg,” said Julian. “Your face. Don’t worry, I can help.” 

As he supported him limping off the path, set him down and prepared a makeshift poultice of herbs and paste from a rough-hewn poacher’s satchel, Julian explained the ways of the world to the unfortunate gringo tourist. “Let me guess, you look for treasure? Inca gold in them hills?” There was a rueful scoff; the boy knew he was right. “You’re not the first turista tricked by puta’s tales.”

Julian wrapped the poultice around his knee where it was grazed and smeared a grey paste down his cheek. “To stop infection. It heal good.”

“I guess I’m just another sucker,” he said. “No gold totem after all.” He sighed with realisation of his naivety; gullible willingness to believe in the unbelievable had near brought him death. 

Julian smiled. “No, there is treasure here. Everyone knows where it is. I can take you if like.” Gilded condors, pumas and snakes didn’t seem so important now, but… how far? 

“You were almost there,” said Julian. “But…” He looked at the bandaged knee. “Maybe wait until morning. Leg will heal with the light.”

It was only then he realised the sun was setting into the hillside; the sky was darkening navy and a night limp back would ensure a broken neck more efficient than anything muggers could inflict. Like it or not, he was spending a night under the stars.

HE FELT EMBARRASSED AGAIN FOR FIRST WORLD FORTUNE AND REGRET HUNG IN THE AIR

Julian spoke in broken English more fluent than his Spanish. “I listen to travellers speak, a lot pass me by on their way through – maybe I get some words wrong, maybe you just hear me better.” He guessed the boy was unschooled, then instantly regretted any snobbish presumption from Western privilege. The kid saved his damn life.

The mountain boy had swiftly prepared a camp fire, the beneficiary of his kindness barely keeping up with such rapid collection of twigs and brush. Perhaps friendship could provide payback?

“I would so much like to see the world,” the boy said. “Such a big world outside this mountain. Tell me where you been?”

He didn’t think of himself as well-travelled, so many peers had seen so much more, but as he began reeling off a checklist of place names he realised his fortune; so many of the world never had the chance to see outside their own tiny corner. Paris, London, Bucharest, Chang Mai, Auckland, Sydney, Angkor Wat, Saigon, Dhahran, Los Angeles…

“New York?” 

“No New York. Not yet.” 

The boy grew more excited and eyes widened with enthusiasm for each location. “Ah, you have to do New York. Buildings taller than this mountain they say. Imagine that many people.”

“Maybe you will see New York one day Julian,” he said. As soon as the words were out he realised their foolishness; how many lives would a boy have to work for the price of plane ticket? His blue-striped poncho was as much hole as thread. He felt embarrassed again for his First World riches and regret hung in the air.

The boy knew the truth as well. “No, I’m not leaving this mountain,” he said, eyes welling into the fire, sadness in that resignation.

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