Pepe beamed – whether from the prospect of a little excitement or because he disliked Rudd’s politics, I couldn’t say. Eventually I got the whole story from him. It seems that Rudd had gotten lost here in the mountains and was discovered by some alpaca herders. He was exhausted and hungry, so the herders took him to their village. The headman tried to converse with him, but didn’t speak any English. Rudd, who didn’t speak Spanish, tried the headman in Chinese of all things, at which point the headman called on his neighbors to seize the stranger and lock him in the root cellar of his house. That was all Pepe knew, but it was enough for us to slap leather and get to the village before Rudd unexpectedly became the late Prime Minister.
We arrived two hours later, stirring up a cloud of dust in the village square. A small, wiry man – elderly, but still vigorous – emerged from the shadows of an adobe house, smoking a cheroot. Pepe dismounted and introduced us as three Americans who had been sent to find a lost Australian. The old coot turned out to be the village headman, and when we informed him (through Pepe) that he was holding the Australian Prime Minister prisoner, he scoffed. He spoke in great agitation to Pepe for some moments, and when he finished, he folded his arms authoritatively. Pepe translated for us.
“The cacique says that you are mistaken, Señor Paco. The prisoner was talking in Chinese when he got here, unmasking himself as Sendero Luminoso! Also, he was carrying explosives!”
Now it was becoming clear; everything was falling into place. When the headman heard Rudd talking in Chinese, he assumed that he must have been an agent of the dreaded Sendero Luminoso - the Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla group that had sought to liberate the Peruvian peasantry in a campaign of horrible brutality nearly twenty years ago. As is usual with communist schemes, the ostensible beneficiaries were the ones who suffered the most, as the baffled and terrified farmers rejected revolution and were, in turn, gunned down in the hundreds by their exasperated “benefactors”. Shining Path had largely been brought under control since the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzmán, back in 1992; however, the fear of a comeback was still very much alive among the rural folk. The cacique possessed some limited juridical powers, among which he considered the summary execution of terrorists to be one. I understood how he felt, and I couldn’t say that I blamed him, but I was pretty sure that he was at odds with the Peruvian government on this score – and he was definitely on the wrong track if he took Rudd to be Shining Path. Yet I was stumped by Rudd’s possession of explosives.
I asked if we could see the explosives. The cacique assured us that we were perfectly free to examine them; they were in a knapsack the prisoner had been carrying, and were stored in a wooden shack at the edge of the village. He accompanied us to the shack, entered it, and stepped back out into the sunshine, walking very slowly, carrying the knapsack in his hands. He gingerly placed it on the ground and invited us to inspect its contents, more or less unconsciously back-pedaling a few yards. I knelt down and very carefully lifted a glass jar from the sack, reading the label aloud: “Vegemite”. I looked at the cacique. “Kablooie!” he whispered, mimicking an explosion with his hands. I smiled at him and carried the jar over to my partners.
“Well, boys, it turns out that the blasting material is only Vegemite.”
Rove and Wronwright began laughing, but I cut them short. “Listen, guys, this is a ticklish situation. If we want to prove to this bird that the stuff is food, someone’s going to have to eat it.”
Rove blanched. Wronwright, on the other hand - and much to my astonishment - lit up like Stewart Granger after a wet kiss from Deborah Kerr. “What, Vegemite? I love the stuff! Here, gimme!”
Pepe explained to the cacique that Vegemite was food, not explosive gel. The headman was dubious, but when he saw Wronwright scoop out a handful and swallow it, he visibly deflated and began to suspect that he had made a huge mistake.
“Pepe”, I said. “Ask His Honor if we can see the prisoner.”
We returned to the cacique’s house. As we walked, the headman spoke to Pepe, gesticulating wildly; it appeared that he was trying to justify himself. “What’s he saying, Pepe?”, I asked.
“The cacique says that he thought Señor Rudd was a spy. Not just because of the Chinese and the explosives, but because, after he was arrested, he kept digging into his ears and eating something. The cacique thought he was destroying secret instructions on microfilm.”
“Mm. A sort of Chew Guevara eh?”
“How is that, Señor?”
“Skip it”, I said.
We arrived at the cacique’s house and he unlocked the root cellar. I called down into the darkness; “Prime Minister Rudd! It’s ok, you can come out now!” A familiar figure stumbled up the stairs, slightly stooped and squinting in the bright sunlight. “Thank God!” he cried. “I’ve been rescued!”
The cacique was still not entirely convinced, until Rudd laid eyes on Rove and grabbed his hand. “Karl! Karl Rove!” The headman’s eyes widened in amazement, and he pronounced the name with something approaching awe. “Rove!” The other villagers heard the name, and all of them removed their sombreros and crossed themselves; apparently his powers were known even in this forgotten corner of the world. Pepe expanded upon his earlier terse introductions, and showed the cacique our diplomatic credentials. Hizzoner began apologizing profusely, and invited us to step into his home for some refreshment. We seated ourselves on the few crude wooden chairs that were placed around an old door on sawhorses that served as a table.
Rudd clung to Rove as if he were a life-preserver tossed to a man who had fallen off a cruise ship. Rove plied him with questions.
“Kevin, what’s this business about a treasure map?”
“Karl, have you ever drunk pisco?”
“No, I can’t say that I have.”
“Well, don’t! It’s an instrument of the devil! I was sitting in the bar at my hotel in Lima, and I ordered a glass, just to try it, and it seemed tame enough, so I ordered another glass, and then another, and before I knew what happened I was…what is it you Yanks say?…I was snockered. Yes, that’s it; completely snockered. A bellboy sidled up to me and offered to sell me a treasure map, and after one glass of pisco, I thought it would be a lark to buy it – you know, a kind of silly souvenir – but after a few more drinks, I was convinced the thing was genuine, and after nearly a whole bottle, I found myself on a bus headed to Mas Alla. I checked into some ghastly hostel, and the next morning, my mind still lost in a pisco fog, I rented a burro and some camping equipment and headed off into the hills.”
“Where’s your burro?” Karl asked.
“The first night on the trail, I forgot to tether him, and when I woke up the next morning, he was gone – along with my food and water. I wandered around the hills for a day or so until these people found me.”
“Whatever possessed you to talk Chinese to these folks?”
“They didn’t speak any English, and my Spanish is extremely limited – pretty much to ‘Pisco, por favor’ – so I tried them with Chinese. These mountain people are mostly of Indian extraction, and so I thought…well, you know…prehistoric land bridge to Asia and all that, maybe there would be some linguistic similarities between Chinese and the native lingo. It was just a shot in the dark, really.”
“It was a shot in the dark that almost got you shot in broad daylight. The villagers thought you were a Maoist guerilla. The chief, here, was going to have you executed.”
Rudd squeezed his head with both hands, as if testing it for ripeness. “With this hangover, I would have considered it an act of mercy.” In disgust, he pulled the map out of his pocket and slammed it on the table.
The headman’s wife, a rotund specimen about five by five, brought a tray loaded down with an eclectic collection of glasses, ceramic mugs and one rusty tin can, all filled with a clear liquid. Wronwright asked, “What is it?” Pepe piped up, “Ah! It’s pisco, Señor!” The color drained out of Rudd’s face and he placed a hand over his mouth before quickly excusing himself and running outside.
During Rudd’s brief absence, Wronwright asked Pepe whether there was anything to this treasure business. Pepe put the question to the headman, who laughed uproariously. A few moments later, Pepe turned to Wronwright. “No, Señor. The treasure of King Capac Yupanqui is just a story the Incas made up to get the Spaniards off their backs; the Incas figured they would be better off if the conquistadores spent their time wandering lost in the Andes rather than hanging around their towns and villages.”
We shook our heads and smiled. Although I noticed that Wronwright quietly pocketed the map.
* * *
Back home again, we sat in my office, smoking some victory heaters that Karl had purchased during the layover in Miami.
“Well, gents,” I said, blowing a perfect smoke ring, “that’s $25,000 apiece, plus the goodwill of the incoming Obama administration, thanks to Rudd’s effusively grateful call to the President-Elect…and from what I’ve heard, Karl, several offers to ply your skills in the antipodes.”
Rove puffed contentedly on his cigar, hands clasped behind his head. “No, I may well go there for a vacation, but parliamentary politics is not in my line.”
“By the way,” I queried. “How did Rudd explain this little episode back home?”
“He made a statement to the press that he had ‘declared war’ on Peruvian poverty, and that he was only trying to find the treasure for the good of the Peruvian people.”
“How’s that story going over?”
Rove flashed the “thumb-down” sign.
Rove turned to Wronwright. “Wron, how about you? You got any interest in trying your luck in Australia? …Wron?”
Wronwright was poring over the treasure map. “Hmm? Oh, uh…Well, we were in Peru for such a short while, I thought I might go back, maybe do some sight-seeing.”
“Wronwright!” I got up out of my chair and snatched the map out from under his nose.
“Look, Paco, just look at the map! That’s really old parchment. And if you’ll note carefully, it appears to me that Rudd didn’t follow the right trail. According to my calculations, the treasure would be almost smack dab in the middle of that flea-bitten village, not in the valley where the alpaca herders found him.”
“Oh, really?” I said. I struck a match and lit the map.
“Hey!” Wron shouted.
“You’ll thank me later, buddy.”
* * *
In a village nestled in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes, the sun had gone down, and a kerosene lantern glowed on a rough table – a door, actually, laid across two sawhorses. A plump peasant woman was clearing the remains of the evening meal, as she talked to her husband, the village headman.
“You know, Pancho, that was a risky thing, locking the gringo in the root cellar.”
Her husband – a wiry little man, elderly but still in vigorous good health – lit a cheroot. “Ay, Maria, you are right about that! It was a near thing. But how was I to know that the fellow was looking for the treasure? In any event, the lids on the great casks in the cellar are nailed down tight, so there was very little likelihood that Señor Rood would have found the gold. No, the sacred treasure of King Capac Yupanqui is still safe, and I will continue to guard it, as all of my forebears have done.” He lifted his chin, and threw out what there was of his chest; “At the cost of my life, if necessary.” Maria smiled sweetly at him, and kissed his forehead. “Must you guard the treasure quite so carefully, querido? It would be nice to have a real table, and some matching drinking glasses.”
“Maria!” Pancho gasped, giving her a scandalized look. She shrugged and went back to washing the dishes. Pancho chuckled softly, however. “Well, I tell you what. The market for alpaca wool looks very strong this year. Maybe next month, when we make our annual trip to the Wal-Mart in Lima, we’ll find you a real table, and real glasses to put on it.”
Maria beamed at Pancho, and dried a tear from her eye with the corner of her apron. “You are a good man, Pancho.”