I HE MONEY WORKED. The pilot reluctantly agreed to I fly, but insisted that they leave early and be back in Corumba by noon. He had small children, an angry wife, and it was, after all, Christmas Eve. Valdir promised and soothed, and paid a nice deposit in cash.
A deposit was also paid to Jevy, the guide Valdir had been negotiating with for a week. Jevy was twenty-four, single, a weight lifter with thick arms, and when he bounced into the lobby of the Palace Hotel, he wore a bush hat, denim shorts, black army boots, a tee shirt with no sleeves, and a shiny bowie knife tucked into his belt just in case he might need to skin something. He crushed Nate's hand as he shook it. “Bom dia,” he said through a large, wide smile.
“Bom dia,” Nate said, gritting his teeth as his fingers cracked. The knife could not be ignored; its blade was eight inches long.
“You speak Portuguese?” Jevy asked.
“No. Just English.”
“No problem,” he said, finally releasing his death grip. “I speak English.” The accent was thick, but so far Nate had caught every word. “Learned it in the army,” Jevy said proudly.
Jevy was instantly likable. He took Nate's briefcase and said something smart to the girl behind the desk. She blushed and wanted more.
His truck was a 1978 Ford three-quarter-ton pickup, the largest vehicle Nate had seen so far in Corumba. It appeared to be jungle-ready, with large tires, a winch on the front bumper, thick grates over the headlights, a black shade tree paint job, no fenders. And no air conditioning.
They roared through the streets of Corumba, slowing only slightly at red lights, completely ignoring stop signs, and in general bullying cars and motorcycles, all anxious to avoid Jevy's tank. Either by design or by neglect, the muffler worked badly. The engine was loud, and Jevy felt compelled to talk as he clutched the wheel like a race driver. Nate didn't hear a word. He smiled and nodded like an idiot while holding his position-feet planted on the floor, one hand clenching the window frame, the other holding his briefcase. His heart stopped with each new intersection.
Evidently the drivers understood a traffic system where the rules of the road, if any, were ignored. There were no accidents, no carnage. Everyone, including Jevy, managed to stop or yield or swerve just in the nick of time.
The airport was deserted. They parked by the small terminal and walked to one end of the tarmac, where four small airplanes were tied down. One was being prepped by the pilot, a man Jevy did not know. Introductions were made in Portuguese. The pilot's name sounded like Milton. He was friendly enough, but it was obvious he'd rather not be flying or working on the day before Christmas.
As the Brazilians talked, Nate examined the aircraft. The first thing he noticed was the need for a paint job, and this in itself concerned him greatly. If the outside was peeling, could the inside be much better? The tires were slick. There were oil stains around the engine compartment. It was an old Cessna 206, single engine.
The fueling took fifteen minutes, and the bright and early start dragged on, with 10 A.M. approaching. Nate withdrew his fancy cell phone from the deep pocket of his khaki shorts, and called Sergio.
He was having coffee with his wife, making plans for last-minute shopping, and Nate was again grateful that he was out of the country, away from the holiday frenzy. It was cold and sleeting along the mid-Atlantic. Nate assured him he was still together; no problems.
He had stopped the slide, he thought. He had awakened with fresh resolve and strength; it had only been a passing moment of weakness. So he didn't mention it to Sergio. He should have, but why worry him now?
As they talked, the sun slipped behind a dark cloud, and a few scattered raindrops fell around Nate. He hardly noticed. He hung up after the standard “Merry Christmas.”
The pilot announced he was ready. “Do you feel safe?” Nate asked Jevy as they loaded the briefcase and a backpack.
Jevy laughed, and said, “No problem. This man has four small children, and a pretty wife, so he says. Why would he risk his life?”
Jevy wanted to take flying lessons, so he volunteered to take the right seat, next to Milton. It was fine with Nate. He sat behind them in a small cramped seat, his belt and shoulder straps fastened as snug as possible. The engine started with some reluctance, too much in Nate's opinion, and the small cabin was an oven until Milton opened his window. The backdraft from the propeller helped them breathe. They taxied and bounced across the tarmac to the end of the runway. Clearance was not a problem because there was no other traffic. When they lifted off, Nate's shirt was stuck to his chest and sweat ran down his neck.
Corumba was instantly beneath them. It looked prettier from the air, with its neat rows of small houses on streets that all appeared to be smooth and orderly. Downtown was busy now, with cars waiting in traffic and pedestrians darting across the streets. The city was on a bluff with the river below it. They followed the river north, climbing slowly as Corumba faded behind. There were scattered clouds and light turbulence.
At four thousand feet, the majesty of the Pantanal suddenly appeared as they passed through a large, ominous cloud. To the east and north, a dozen small rivers spun circles around and through each other, going nowhere, linking each marsh to a hundred others. Because of the floods, the rivers were full and in many places ran together. The water had differing shades. The stagnant marshes were dark blue, almost black in some places where the weeds were thick. The deeper ponds were green. The smaller tributaries carried a reddish dirt, and the great Paraguay was full and as brown as malted chocolate. On the horizon, as far as the eye could see, all water was blue and all earth was green.
While Nate looked to the east and north, his two companions were looking to the west, to the distant mountains of Bolivia. Jevy pointed, catching Nate's attention. The sky was darker beyond the mountains.
Fifteen minutes into the flight, Nate saw the first dwelling of any type. It was a farm on the banks of the Paraguay. The house was small and neat, with the mandatory red-tiled roof. White cows grazed in a pasture and drank at the edge of the river. The daily wash hung from a clothesline near the house. No sign of human activity-no vehicles, no TV antenna, no electrical lines. A small square garden with a fence around it was a short walk from the house, down a dirt path. The plane passed through a cloud, and the farm disappeared.
More clouds. They thickened, and Milton dropped to three thousand feet to stay below them. Jevy told him that it was a sightseeing mission, so stay as low as possible. The first Guato settlement was about an hour from Corumba.
They veered away from the river for a few minutes, and in doing so flew over a fazenda. Jevy folded his map, drew a circle around something, and thrust it back to Nate. “Fazenda da Prata,” he said, then pointed below. On the map, the fazendas were all named, as if they were grand estates. On the ground, Fazenda da Prata was not much bigger than die first farm Nate had seen. There were more cows, a couple of small outbuildings, a slightly larger house, and a long straight belt of land that Nate finally realized was the airstrip. There was no river close by, and certainly no roads. Access was only by air.
Milton was increasingly worried about the dark sky to the west. It was moving east, they were moving north, a meeting seemed inevitable. Jevy leaned back and shouted, “He doesn't like that sky over there.”
Nor did Nate, but he wasn't the pilot. He shrugged because he could think of no other response.
“We'll watch it for a few minutes,” Jevy said. Milton wanted to go home. Nate wanted to at least see the Indian villages. He still held the faint hope that he could somehow fly in to meet Rachel, and perhaps whisk her away to Corumba, where they could have lunch in a nice cafe and discuss her father's estate. Faint hopes, and rapidly fading.
A helicopter was not out of the question. The estate could certainly afford it. If Jevy could find the right village, and the right spot to make a landing, Nate would rent a chopper in an instant.
He was dreaming.
Another small fazenda, this one a short distance from the Paraguay River. Raindrops began hitting the windows of the plane, and Milton dropped to two thousand feet. An impressive row of mountains was to the left, much nearer, with the river snaking its way through the dense forests at their base.
From over the mountaintops, the storm rushed at them with a fury. The sky was suddenly much darker; the winds jolted the Cessna. It dipped sharply, causing Nate's head to hit the top of the cabin. He was instantly terrified.
“We're turning around,” Jevy shouted back. His voice lacked the calmness Nate would've preferred. Milton was stonefaced, but the cool aviator's sunshades were gone, and sweat covered his forehead. The plane veered hard to the right, east then southeast, and as it completed its southward turn, a sickening sight awaited them. The sky toward Corumba was black.
Milton wanted no part of it. He quickly turned east, and said something to Jevy.
“We can't go to Corumba,” Jevy yelled to the rear seat. “He wants to look for a fazenda. We'll land and wait for the storm to pass.” His voice was high and anxious, his accent much thicker.
Nate nodded as best he could. His head was bobbing and bouncing, and aching from the first crack into the ceiling. And his stomach was beginning to rumble.
For a few minutes it seemed as though the race would be won by the Cessna. Surely, Nate thought, an airplane of any size can outrun a storm. He rubbed the crown of his head, and decided against looking behind them. But the dark clouds were coming from the sides now.
What kind of backward, half-ass pilot takes off without checking the radar? On the other hand, the radar, if they even had it, was probably twenty years old and unplugged for the holidays.
The rain peppered the aircraft. The winds howled around it. The clouds boiled past it. The storm caught and overtook them, and the small plane was yanked and thrust up and down and pushed from side to side. For a very long two minutes Milton was unable to fly it because of the turbulence. He was riding a bronco, not flying an airplane.
Nate was looking out his window, and seeing nothing, no water or marshes or nice little fazendas with long airstrips. He slumped even lower. He locked his teeth and vowed that he would not vomit.
An air pocket dropped the plane a hundred feet in less than two seconds, and all three men yelled something. Nate's was a very loud “Oh shit!” His Brazilian buddies cursed in Portuguese. The exclamations were wrapped in heavy layers of fear.
There was a break, a very quick one in which the air was still. Milton pushed the control yoke forward and began a nosedive. Nate braced himself with both hands on the back of Milton's seat, and for the first and hopefully only time in his life he felt like a kamikaze pilot. His heart was racing and his stomach was in his throat. He closed his eyes and thought of Sergio, and of the yoga instructor at Walnut Hill who'd taught him prayer and meditation. He tried to meditate and he tried to pray, but it was impossible trapped in a falling airplane. Death was only seconds away.
A thunderclap just above the Cessna stunned them, like a shotgun in a dark room, and it shook them to their bones. Nate's eardrums practically burst.
The dive ended at five hundred feet as Milton fought the winds and leveled off. “Look for a fazenda!” Jevy yelled from the front, and Nate, reluctantly, peeked out the window The earth below was being pelted by rain and wind. The trees swayed and the small ponds had whitecaps. Jevy scanned a map, but they were hopelessly lost.
The rain came in white sheets that cut visibility to only a few hundred feet. At times, Nate could barely see the ground. They were surrounded by torrents of rain, all being blown sideways by a brutal wind. Their little plane was being tossed about like a kite. Milton fought the controls while Jevy looked desperately in all directions. They were not going down without a fight.
But Nate gave up. If they couldn't see the ground, how could they expect to land safely? The worst of the storm had yet to catch them. It was over.
He would not plea bargain with God. This was what he deserved for the life he had led. Hundreds of people die in plane crashes every year; he was no better.
He caught a glimpse of a river, just under them, and he suddenly remembered the alligators and anacondas. He was horrified by the thought of crash landing in a swamp. He saw himself badly injured but not dead, clinging to life, fighting for survival, trying to get the damned satellite phone to work while at the same time fending off hungry reptiles.
Another thunderclap shook the cabin, and Nate decided to fight after all. He searched the ground in a vain attempt to find a fazenda. A flash of lightning blinded them for a second. The engine sputtered and almost stalled, then caught itself and rattled away. Milton dropped to four hundred feet, a safe altitude under normal circumstances. At least there were no hills or mountains to worry about in the Pantanal.
Nate pulled his shoulder harness even tighter, then vomited between his legs. He felt no disgrace in doing so. He felt nothing but utter terror.
Darkness engulfed them. Milton and Jevy yelled back and forth as they bounced and fought to control the airplane. Their shoulders hit and rubbed together. The map was stuck between Jevy's legs, totally useless.
The storm moved under them. Milton descended to two hundred feet, where the ground could be seen in patches. A gust blew them sideways, literally yanking the Cessna to one side, and Nate realized how helpless they were. He saw a white object below, and yelled and pointed, “A cow! A cow!” Jevy screamed the translation to Milton.
They dropped through the clouds at eighty feet, in a blinding rain, and flew directly over the red roof of a house. Jevy yelled again, and pointed to something on his side of the plane. The airstrip looked to be the length of a nice suburban driveway, dangerous even in good weather. It didn't matter. They had no choice. If they crashed, at least there were people nearby.
They had spotted the strip too late to land with the wind, so Milton muscled the plane around for a landing into the face of the storm. The wind slapped the Cessna around and practically stalled it. The rain reduced visibility to almost nothing. Nate leaned over for a look at the runway, and saw only the water drenching the windshield.
At fifty feet, the Cessna was blown sideways. Milton fought it back into position. Jevy yelled, “Vaca! Vaca!” Nate immediately understood that vaca meant cow. Nate saw it too. They missed the first one.
In the flash of images before they hit, Nate saw a boy with a stick running through tall grass, soaking wet and frightened. And he saw a cow running away from the airstrip. He saw Jevy brace himself while staring through the windshield, eyes wild, mouth open but no words coming out.
They slammed into the grass, but kept moving for— ward. It was a landing, not a crash, and in that split second Nate hoped they would not die. Another gust lifted them ten feet into the air, then they hit again.
The propeller ripped into a large, curious, stationary cow. The plane flipped violently, all windows bursting outward, all three men screaming their last words.
NATE WOKE UP sideways, covered in blood, scared beyond words, but very much alive and suddenly aware that it was still raining. The wind howled through the plane. Milton and Jevy were tangled on top of each other, but moving too and trying to get themselves unbuckled.
Nate found a window and stuck his head out. The Cessna was on its side, with a wing cracked and folded under the cabin. Blood was everywhere, but it was from the cow, not the passengers. The rain, still coming down in sheets, was quickly washing it away.
The boy with the stick led them to a small stable near the airstrip. Out of the storm, Milton dropped to his knees and mumbled an earnest little prayer to the Virgin Mary. Nate watched, and sort of prayed along with him.
There were no serious injuries. Milton had a slight cut on his forehead. Jevy's right wrist was swelling. More soreness would come later.
They sat in the dirt for a long time, watching the rain, hearing the wind, thinking of what could've been, saying nothing.