An ambush - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

“If he doesn’t come this time I’ll cut the painter as far as the pair of you are concerned, I’ll be damned if I won’t. I’ll get smarter people onto the job,” Zurita was saying, tugging impatiently at his bristly moustache. He wore a white town suit and a panama hat. They had met well outside Buenos Aires, at a point where the pampas were taking over from the maize fields.

Baltasar, in a white blouse and a pair of blue-striped trousers, was squatting by the roadside, plucking dejectedly at the sun-parched brittle blades of grass.

He himself was beginning to regret having sent his brother to spy on Salvator.

Though Baltasar’s elder by ten years, Cristo was strong and lithe and as cunning as a pampas-cat. But he was not reliable. He couldn’t settle down to anything. There had been a time he took up farming but soon dropped it, thoroughly bored. Then he ran a dockside tavern till he drank himself out of house and home. Lately Cristo had been earning a precarious living on the windy side of the law. With his sharp wits he could ferret out anything but was not to be trusted with much. He might even betray his own brother if it were made worth his while. Baltasar knew his man and was as worried as Zurita.

“Are you sure Cristo saw the balloon, anyhow?”

Baltasar shrugged his shoulders. He would have much preferred to drop the whole affair there and then, go home and have a glass of cold water laced with wine in the peace and quiet of his shop.

A cloud of dust mushroomed over the turn of the road and was lit up by the last rays of the setting sun. A shrill drawn-out whistle wa
s heard.

Baltasar livened up.

“That’s him! “ he said.

“Not too damned soon either,” said Zurita.

Striding briskly towards them was Cristo — no longer a doddering old Indian with a sick grandchild come to see the doctor. Giving another whistle Cristo came nearer and saluted the pair.

“Well, have you seen the ‘sea-devil’?” Zurita asked him by way of greeting.

“Not yet, but he’s there all right. Salvator keeps him behind four walls. The main thing is Salvator trusts me. That sick granddaughter did it.” Cristo laughed, narrowing his sly eyes. “She nearly gave the whole show away though. When she recovered, I mean. Here’s me, picking her up and kissing her like a loving grand — dad and she kicks away and fairly bursts into tears,” and he laughed again.

“Where did you get the girl?” asked Zurita.

“Money’s hard to get, girls aren’t,” said Cristo. “And her mother’s happy too. I got five pesos-she got her daughter back healthy.”

That he had also received a sizeable sum from Salvator he didn’t trouble to mention. All the more understandable this, since he wasn’t going to share it with the child’s mother.

“A regular zoo that place — chock-full of monsters.” And Cristo started his story.

“That might all be very interesting,” Zurita said after some time and lighted a cigar, “but you haven’t seen the goods. What do you propose to do next?”

“Make a trip to the Andes.” And Cristo told them of Salvator’s plan.

“Splendid! “ exulted Zurita. “We’ll attack the place as soon as Salvator’s party leaves and carry the ‘sea-devil’ away by force. The place’s so out-of-the-way one could do it in broad daylight and nobody the wiser.”

Cristo shook his head.

“The jaguars will bite your heads off. Even if they don’t you won’t find the ‘sea-devil’-not until I’ve found out where he is.”
“Then here’s what well do,” Zurita said, after thinking it over for a while. “Well ambush Salvator’s party, take him prisoner and hold him to ransom. The ‘sea-devil’ 11 be the price.”

With a slick movement of his hand Cristo drew a cigar out of Zurita’s breast pocket.

“Many thanks. An ambush’s better. But Salvator’s sure to pull some trick on you-promise to deliver the goods and never do it or something. Those Spaniards-” the rest of the sentence was lost in coughing.

“Well, what do you suggest?” Zurita said irritably.

“Patience. Salvator trusts me but only as far as three walls go. He must be made to trust me as he trusts his own shadow, then he’ll show me the ‘sea-devil’ of his own free will.”

“Well?”

“Well, Salvator will be attacked by bandits,” he jabbed his finger at Zurita’s chest, “and delivered from them by an honest Araucanian” — he tapped his own chest. “Then there will be no secrets from Cristo in Salvator’s house. And no lack of golden pesos,” he added in an aside for himself.

“That’s not a bad idea.”

Then they agreed on the road Cristo should suggest to Salvator.

“On the eve of the departure I’ll throw a red stone over the wall. Have everything ready.” And Cristo was gone.

Though the plan of attack was well worked out an unforeseen circumstance nearly made it fall through.

Zurita, Baltasar and a dozen cutthroats hired in the dockside, wearing Gaucho clothes all well armed and mounted, had taken up stations alongside the pampas road. The night was dark. The gang listened hard for the hoofbeats.

Suddenly the bandits heard the chugging of an engine, quickly drawing nearer. Two powerful headlights stabbed the darkness and before they knew where they were a big black car had rushed by.

It had never entered Cristo’s head that Salvator could travel in this new, unconentional way.

Zurita was beside himself with rage and disappointment; Baltasar was amused.

“Take it easy, master,” he said. “They travel by night and will rest in the daytime. We’ll overtake them.” And he spurred his horse on; the rest followed suit.

They had ridden hard for the better part of two hours when they spotted the glow of a campfire ahead.

“That’s them. Something’s happened. Wait for me here while I do some scouting.”

And dismounting, Baltasar crawled snakelike into the darkness.

He returned in an hour.

“The car’s out of order. They’re repairing it. Cristo keeps watch. Come on, let’s hurry and get it done with.”

It was a quick job. The bandits took Salvator’s party by surprise — just when they had repaired the car-and tied Salvator, Cristo and the three Blacks hand and foot with not a shot fired.

One of the bandits, who acted chieftain, Zurita preferring to stay in the’ background, told Salvator that they were prepared to ransom him for a big sum of money and named it.

“Youll have it,” said Salvator.

“That’s for you. And it’s double if you want your men set free too,” said the bandit following up his advantage.

“I haven’t got that much money available,” Salvator said, after a pause.

“Finish him off! “ the bandits shouted all at once.

“I’ll give you till dawn to think it over,” said the bandits’ spokesman.

Salvator shrugged his shoulders as he repeated:

“I haven’t got that much available.”

His coolness impressed even the bandits.

Taking Salvator and his men aside, the bandits ransacked the car and found the spirits intended for collections. Soon they were drunk and sleeping on the ground.

At crack of dawn somebody crawled softly to Salvator’s side.

“It’s me,” came Cristo’s voice. “I managed to untie myself and have killed the bandit on watch. The rest are drunk and incapable. Let’s hurry! “

They got in, the Black driver started the engine, the car leapt forward.

Behind there were shouts and a few rifle shots rang out.

Salvator pressed Cristo’s hand.

Only after Salvator’s departure did Zurita learn that Salvator had been willing to pay. Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to take it than try to kidnap a “sea-devil” nobody knew was worth anything? It’s all over bar the shouting, though, he thought. And he waited for news from Cristo.