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He had never expected to survive the sinking of his boat. The river had been a quiet mirror that morning, meandering through the endless jungle. Just before the explosion, the leafy green walls on either side of the river had fallen silent. Then a lone bird cried a shrill warning and the peace was suddenly shattered. A sea mine blew the bow off of his beautiful black-hulled wooden yawl. The powerful explosion rocked the jungle; the sky above the river suddenly went dark with birds taking wing.
He knew his lovely Pura Vida was finished before he drew a second breath.
Pura Vida, the pretty yawl he'd fitted with a retractable keel, had shuddered to a stop, down by the head. She instantly began taking water. She had sunk with nearly all hands in minutes. Small-arms fire erupted from the forest. The river was alive with death. Unseen forces began spitting bullets from both banks. A chorus of fear rose from those choking and dying in the water. The machine gun attack killed everyone clinging to overturned life rafts or desperately scrambling up the muddy banks.
He himself had been fishing off the stern, his legs dangling over the gunwale. When he heard the explosion for'ard, and felt the yawl stagger and founder, he dove for a semi-automatic rifle kept loaded and stowed in the cockpit. Water rising round his legs, he emptied the thirty-round banana clip into the forest. When it was empty, he slammed in another mag and repeated firing off the port side.
He threw life rings, cushions, whatever he could grab. It was useless. He saw his colleagues in the water, many already dead or dying in a rain of lead. The ship was engulfed in flames and listing violently to port. Staying aboard another second was suicide.
He dove off the sharply angled stern and swam hard downriver, until his lungs, too, were afire. He surfaced and heard that the firing had stopped. Many riddled bodies were floating downstream toward him. That was when he heard the drums for the first time.
He saw painted faces atop long brown legs sprinting madly through the tangled undergrowth along the banks. He submerged once more and grabbed someone whose arm he'd seen flailing weakly minutes earlier. He pulled her to him and saw that she was dead. He held on to the corpse for a very long time. He was entering a patch of white water and he had no choice but to let his friend go if he was to swim safely to shore.
Her name was Dana Gibbon.
He grabbed an overhanging branch and watched the beautiful woman's body drift away with the river. Her head was submerged but one arm was still draped around a piece of debris from Pura Vida. Dana had been a brilliant young marine biologist from the University of Miami. She'd been doing her thesis on the Rio Negro. At night on deck, they had sipped mojitos and played gin rummy. He never won a hand. And he'd kissed her only once.
Dana's body was lost in a tumult of white water and then she disappeared.
Shortly after Dana's loss, a chance river encounter with a water boa, an anaconda nearly thirty feet long, had left him with a crippling wound to his right hip. The untreated injury became infected. He was no longer able to run. Couldn't run, and he couldn't hide. It was this circumstance that finally led to his first capture.
For some reason, the Indians who originally caught him had not killed him on the spot. He was a healthy specimen if you discounted his wound. He stood over six feet and was very fit. He supposed that was his salvation. He looked fit for work. He was blindfolded and dragged through the jungle to be sold to the highest bidder.
He was sold to Wajari, a great chief of the Xucuru who guarded one of the work camps for Muhammad Top. Top learned he'd been captured. The first night he'd been dragged from the camp and nearly interrogated to death by Papa Top. Somehow, he convinced his interrogator that he was a British scientist and not a spy. Shortly thereafter, he was sent back to the camps to do slave work for the guerilla armies. There, it was assumed, he would die of natural causes.
His role at the camp was one with an extremely low life expectancy. He was not good at following rules. Now, in addition to his road construction, he was part of a doomed brigade used day and night as human targets.
He'd offended a guard by not responding quickly enough to an unintelligible order. The man had struck him on the side of the head with the butt of his gun, knocking him to his knees. He'd gotten to his feet, his blood up, and grabbed the man by the neck. When the man spat in his face, he'd disarmed him and nearly beaten him to death with his bare fists. No one even bothered to watch. It was over in a minute or two.
He stood glaring at them, taunting the guards with their automatic rifles leveled at his heart, waiting for one of them to kill him on the spot. Two of them grabbed him from behind and bound his wrists behind him with hemp. Then they took him away.
Only Machado wished him farewell. "Go with God," the boy said.
"You better Belize it!" he said to the boy as they dragged him away to the camp commandant's tent.
His punishment was swift and typical. After two nights in a hellish device called the Barrel, he had been assigned to what the guards jokingly referred to as the Green Berets. This joke derived from the fact that new initiates had their heads dipped in a vat of green dye. The Green Berets were a group of condemned men sent into the jungle for target practice.
The tactical commanders for guerilla combat training in the dense jungle had devised this system to provide a more realistic experience for their young guerilla fighters. The need for fresh targets was never ending. Most were killed by live fire. Mines or sniper bullets felled others. A few committed suicide to end the agony, and a tiny fraction escaped.
He had escaped. He had done it by melting away during a live fire exercise with many other fleeing targets. He had found his spot, stopped, clutched his gut, and screamed as if mortally wounded. He then dropped into the shallow water of a muddy stream. He waited for five minutes and no one came. He started crawling, later swimming as the water deepened. He swam to where the stream joined a wide green river. He rolled over to his back and let the water take him away. The sun broke from behind a cloud. His face broke into a wide grin: go with the flow.
In this environment escape was a relative term. He had been on the run for five days and nights. He had even less food than he'd been provided with in the camp. Beetles and grubs became a staple. He was exhausted, dehydrated, and on the brink of starvation.
On the sixth day, he could not get to his feet. And the drums were getting louder. Willing panic to subside, he rested quietly on his back for a few moments, hidden by the thick reeds, his emaciated chest heaving. His head suddenly jerked spasmodically to one side. He'd heard something, indistinct, but nevertheless disturbing.
After survival as a living target, his ears were keenly attuned to any variation in jungle sound. He gently placed a hand palm down on a patch of dry ground, a recently acquired method of detecting hostile vibrations.
A tremor, a snapping twig, or a parrot's sudden shriek might herald the approach of a war party.
Indian headhunters, elite centurions of a murderous cannibal tribe called the Xucuru, had been chasing him since his miraculous escape. He was weak, he knew, to the point of utter exhaustion. He'd slept, but only fitfully, and always with his ear to the ground.
Nothing of significant note, however, now reached his ears. An earlier sound, which had resembled the thrum of a small marine motor, must have been just the sound of his own blood thrumming in his skull. No, there was no motor. No tourist boat full of saviors headed upriver to rescue him and deprive the Xucuru warriors of their evening meal. The tourist idea was admittedly laughable. No tourist boat ever ventured this far upriver. Sane men seldom did.
He would die alone, but not wanting for company. The irony of the jungle. There was too much of everything. Too much vibrant existence, too much life, too much death. He felt it in his bones: the cellular activity of jungle life humming at every conceivable level.
Some of the worst life-forms were in the river.
He'd been drifting with the currents. The wide, olive-green river had been his refuge for two long days. He'd tied leafy branches to his head, arms, and upper body, hoping to blend with the half-submerged logs and floating vegetation on the river. The silvery piranha hadn't bothered him, mercifully. Nor had the candiru, an eel-like fish that swims up any available human orifice. That was the one that terrified him most.
A young member of his expedition had been standing in the river, the water just above his knees, urinating. A week later, he died in feverish agony. A candiru had swum up the boy's urine stream and become lodged in his penis. There, feeding on the host's blood, the tiny creature had grown to enormous size. The resulting infection led to the amputation of the organ and the boy's painful death.
He rolled onto one elbow and pushed the reeds aside so he could see the river.
The Xucuru warriors chasing him since his escape from the compound would not let something like a river stop them. In his mind's eye, lying on the bank, he could see the savages racing through the jungle, their naked bodies slathered with streaks of black and red paint, their seven-foot bows and five-foot arrows, their clubs, their blowpipes, and their spears. All would have sworn the blood oath not to return without his head.
It was widely rumored amongst the prisoners in the camps that no one had ever really escaped. The Xucuru warriors hired by the soldiers were relentless in their pursuit of escapees. They would much rather die by each other's hands than return empty handed.
Keep moving, his urgent mind told his wasted body. Wait, the body replied. Wait!
Yes. Do nothing. Surely there was time to lie here on the banks of the Xingu to be warmed by the sun. How sorely he'd missed its warmth. To relax for a time, let the skin and bones dry out. He let his muscles go, digging his fingers into the soft mud beneath him. He felt his mind start to slip, and wondered if the sudden shivering was malarial. If yes, without the malaria pills they'd taken from him, he would surely die. How could one be so cold and yet so hot at the same instant?
The sun was just another brutal enemy. Once he'd regained some strength, he'd have to drag himself back inside the trees, else the harsh rays would soon fry his flesh. He was nearly as naked as the men who chased him. He was dressed only in what remained of the rags he'd escaped in.
And awoke some time later to swarms of piums, clouds of invisible microscopic monsters, which attacked him mercilessly. They left smears of blood where they bit, blood that could attract the piranhas when and if he returned to the river. Fully awake now, for a time, he considered the pleasures to be had in simply dying. Cessation of hunger and pain. Peace. It would be so easy to give in.
His reserves were nil. In captivity, the daily battle to survive had taken its toll, left him depleted in body and mind. He was tired and desperately hungry now. He groaned loudly and fought the urge to sleep again. Hadn't he just slept? How long? A minute? An hour? More? He had no idea.
Around him, the animals of the daylight, too, were noisily preparing for sleep. The nocturnal creatures, their omnivorous appetites whetted, were beginning to stir. The air was suddenly cool. The sun fell suddenly in these latitudes and left behind a sky of cobalt blue and vermilion against which the black palms marching along the riverbank were silhouetted.
High above the treetops, a small cloud, lit from within like a Venetian lantern, hovered above the dark sea of trees. It was really all so very beautiful here. This twilight hour was like some faint memory of love; or fading dreams of happier childhood times. He closed his eyes and tried to hold these comforting images, but they skittered away, leaving a vacuum that delirium could slide into unobserved.
He fixed his pale eyes on the waning yellow moon and wondered if he had the strength of soul to survive.
For not the first time in his life, death looked good.
Alexander Hawke, dreaming of peace, finally slipped into the waiting arms of a coldly beckoning Morpheus.
Copyright © 2006 by Theodore A. Bell