Three men sat around an open fire in front of a tent. It was a hot night, for the time was early August, and the place Central America. To the north, the twinkling lights in the distance told of Mexico City. To the south, the skyline was blotted out by a huge black shadow, rising like a pyramid from the rocks that strewed the district.
Borkovski swigged on a sliver hipflask, “El oro, ¿Donde està?”
The Mexican’s face split in a wide smile, a thick black moustache above whiter-than-white teeth. “The gold, señor, well, how should I know where eet is?”
“Because your brother, Carlos, he’s suddenly driving around in a brand-new Cadillac.”
“Carlos, he gamble. Maybe he win big?”
“Look,” I said, “don’t play us for bloody fools! You disappear into the mountains for six months, barely a couple of pesos to rub together. Then suddenly you set up this trekking company and Carlos is swanning around in a silver machine like he owns the town!”
“What the hell is that?” asked Borkovski, gesturing behind us.
We looked at the blackness filling the southern horizon.
“Looks like an oil well burning,” I said. “Maybe one of the wells caught fire?”
“Mebbe a high-pressure blowout during drilling?” said Borkovski.
“It happens,” said the Mexican. “Maybe they use dynamite to put it out.”
I poked the fire with a long stick and looked up at the twinkling stars filling the sky. There was the unmistakable constellation of Orion, the Hunter, and down to his left, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. There was a new moon, a black disc hanging low in the sky so that the stars shone with an incandescent vigour. “Anyway, you didn’t tell us about the gold.”
The Mexican held out a hand to Borkovski, “The whisky, if I may?”
Borkovski held the silver flask in the air. “Listen you piece of Mexican shit, take us to the gold, and then you can drink our whisky. ¿Comprende?”
Borkovski handed the flask over.
The Mexican took a swig and wiped his mouth with the back of a brown, sweaty hand. The whites of his eyes were like marble. “If you wish, señor, we go tomorrow.”
The next morning, we broke camp early after strong coffee and taking turns to deposit a mess in the bushes. Then we loaded the tent and gear into the Mexican’s Land Rover. I sat in the back, thrown around like a sack of potatoes as he careered along the highway, then turned off on a dusty track towards a range of low mountains. Against the southern horizon, the wall of black smoke was still visible, as if someone were holding a giant darkroom curtain up over the world. In the distance came the faint thump of an explosion. Seemed they were using dynamite, as the Mexican had said.
The track ended at a small, deserted pueblo, the buildings made from adobe, like interconnected orange boxes with randomly placed doors and windows. At the end of an empty street, an old man appeared and came over. “Hola. ¿Como van las cosas?” He wore a white Panama hat and a chequered shirt. He had a grey moustache, and his face was ancient and lined.
The Mexican and the old man slapped each other on the back and began an incomprehensible conversation in Spanish. Finally, the Mexican said, “This man, mi tio, er, he my uncle. He bring us mules.” He spat onto the sandy earth and gave a wide smile. “You can ride?”
The only thing I’d ridden was a bicycle. “Well, sort of,” I replied.
“Been riding all my life,” said Borkovski.
I needn’t have worried. The mules were loaded up with gear and progressed slowly up a stony path into the hills. All I had to do was hold on and look at pinnacles of rock, towering impressively around us. Large black birds swirled around the sky high above us. Vultures, said the Mexican.
On the third day, we encountered a dense forest. The path was narrow and rose through tightly packed trees and shrubs. At times, the Mexican had to dismount and slash back undergrowth with a machete. Then we were riding along the side of a deep gorge where a river crashed over rocks, hundreds of feet below us. My mule stumbled and I felt sweat pouring off me, expecting to be hurled to my death. But the animal recovered and soon we were on a wider track, mercifully away from the gorge, where the trees began to thin out. Then ahead of us was a sight that made me draw my breath.
“My god,” exclaimed Borkovski.
The Mexican crossed his heart and smiled.
Before us, stood a huge pyramid. It appeared to be composed of four layers, each starting a few metres in from the layer beneath it. The top layer didn’t continue to an apex. Instead, there was a plateau, as if a giant hand had squashed the Great Pyramid of Giza. Stone steps led up to the very top. I couldn’t tell if there was another staircase on the other side.
“Come, we climb,” said the Mexican.
Borkovski and I looked at each other but said nothing. The mules were tied up and we began to ascend the ancient stone stairway. The steps were quite high, and it was hard going in the heat building up at midday. There was a warm wind which blew pleasantly over my bare skin, though it did little to diminish the sweat soaking my shirt and shorts.
As we ascended the pyramid, we began to see that the forest went on for many miles in all directions, a thick canopy of tall trees, like a green quilt. Finally, we reached the plateau, where I now saw there was a small stone hut. In the distance, beyond the forest, we could see a range of high mountains, and to the south, that wall of blackness. It looked like the oil well was still on fire. The wind up here was very strong, as I trod the ancient stone flags towards the hut, wondering what this was all about.
Inside was a stone bench and, screwed to the wall, a faded tapestry depicting a female sitting on a chair, a deity with yellow skin and red lines on her face. From her head, stylistic, coloured flames came out in all directions.
“Chantico,” said the Mexican. “Shh.” He motioned us to the stone bench, then began to intone what sounded like some kind of prayer. Finally, after a couple of minutes or so, he made the sign of the cross and turned to us. “There is your gold, señores. You will see.”
I thought Borkovski was going to punch the Mexican but instead, he sighed and we all trouped back down the stairway to our mules.
Well, the next morning I awoke early to the sound of the animals of the forest and a half-remembered dream of Chantico coming to me. I couldn’t recall what she’d said, but then, clearly, in my mind I saw a method of capping oil wells, pumping cement into a tube to the depth desired for a cement plug. And I understood the necessity of using tools of bronze or brass to avoid sparks reigniting the well. By chance, I knew someone in the oil well business who I realised might be interested.
And Borkovski, he awoke with the knowledge he needed to start a riding school, a school which would eventually become famous throughout the whole of Mexico. I came to realise that wisdom could sometimes be more precious than gold.