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TWENTY-FOUR.

 

I HE INDIANS were Guato, longtime residents who I lived like their ancestors and preferred no contact with outsiders. They grew their food in small patches, fished the rivers, and hunted with bows and arrows.

Evidently, they were a deliberate people. After an hour, Jevy smelled smoke. He climbed a tree near the boat, and when he was forty feet up he saw the roofs of their huts. He asked Nate to join him.

Nate had not been in a tree in forty years, but at the moment there was nothing else to do. He made the climb with less ease than Jevy, and finally came to rest on a frail branch. He hugged the trunk with one arm.

They could see the tops of three huts-thick straw laid in neat rows. The blue smoke rose between two of the huts, from a point they couldn't see.

Could he be that close to Rachel Lane? Was she there now, listening to her people and deciding what to do? Would she send a warrior to fetch them, or would she herself simply walk through the woods and say hello?

“It's a small settlement,” Nate said, trying not to move.

“There could be more huts.”

“What do you think they're doing?”

“Talking. Just talking.”

“Well I hate to bring this up, but we need to make a move. We left the boat eight and a half hours ago. I'd like to see Welly before dark.”

“No problem. We'll go back with the current. Plus I know the way. It will be much faster.”

“You're not worried?”

Jevy shook his head as if he hadn't given a thought to shooting down the Cabixa in the dark. Nate certainly had. Of particular concern were the two large lakes they had encountered, each with various tributaries, all of which appeared identical in the daylight.

His plan was to simply say hello to Ms. Lane, give her a bit of history, cover the required legalities, show her the paperwork, answer the basic questions, get her signature, thank her, and complete the meeting as soon as possible. He was worried about the time of day, and the sputtering motor, and the trip back to the Santa Loura. She would probably want to talk, or maybe she wouldn't. Maybe she would say very little and want them to leave and never come back.

Back on the ground, he had settled into the boat for a nap when Jevy saw the Indians. He said something and pointed, and Nate looked at the woods.

They slowly approached the river, in a line behind their leader, the oldest Guato they'd seen so far. He was stocky with an ample belly, and he carried a long stick of some sort. It didn't appear to be sharp or dangerous. It had pretty feathers near the tip, and Nate surmised that it was probably just a ceremonial spear.

The leader quickly sized up the two intruders, and directed his comments at Jevy.

Why are you here? he asked in Portuguese. His face wasn't friendly, but there was no aggression in his presence. Nate studied the spear.

We are looking for an American missionary, a woman, Jevy explained.

Where are you from? The chief asked this while glancing at Nate.

Corumba.

And him? All eyes were on Nate.



He's an American. He needs to find the woman.

Why does he need to find the woman?

It was the first hint that the Indians might know of Rachel Lane. Was she hiding back there somewhere, in the village or maybe in the woods, listening?

Jevy went through a windy narrative explaining how Nate had traveled great distances and almost lost his life. It was an important matter among the Americans, nothing he, Jevy, or the Indians would ever understand.

Is she in danger?

No. None.

She is not here.

“He says she's not here,” Jevy said to Nate.

“Tell him I think he's a lying bastard,” Nate said, softly.

“I don't think so.”

Have you ever seen a woman missionary around here? Jevy asked.

The leader shook his head. No.

Have you ever heard of one?

At first, there was no response. His eyes narrowed as he stared at Jevy, sizing him up, as if to say, Can this man be trusted? Then, a slight nod.

Where is she? Jevy asked.

With another tribe.

Where?

He said he wasn't sure, but he began pointing anyway. Somewhere off to the north and west, he said, with his spear waving across half the Pantanal.

“Guato?” Jevy asked.

He frowned and shook his head, as if she lived among undesirables. “Ipicas,” he said with scorn.

How far away?

A day.

Jevy attempted to pin him down on the time, but soon learned that hours meant nothing to the Indians. A day wasn't twenty-four hours and it wasn't twelve. It was simply a day. He tried the concept of half a day, and made progress.

“Twelve to fifteen hours,” he said to Nate.

“But that's in one of those little canoes, right?” Nate whispered.

“Yes.”

“So how fast can we get there?”

“Three or four hours. If we can find it.”

Jevy retrieved two maps and spread them on the grass. The Indians were very curious. They squatted close to their leader.

To find out where they were going, they first had to determine where they were. And this took a bad turn when the leader informed Jevy that the river that brought them in was not, in fact, the Cabixa. They had taken a wrong turn at some point after meeting the fisherman, and stumbled onto the Guato. Jevy took the news hard, and whispered it to Nate.

Nate took it even harder. He was trusting Jevy with his life.

Fancy— colored navigational maps meant little to the Indians. They were soon ignored as Jevy began drawing his own. He started with the unnamed river lying before them, and, chatting constantly with the chief, slowly made his way to the north. The chief received input from two young men. The two, he explained to Jevy, were excellent fishermen and traveled occasionally to the Paraguay.

“Hire them,” Nate whispered.

Jevy tried, but in the course of negotiations learned that the two had never seen the Ipicas, didn't particularly want to, didn't know exactly where they were, and didn't understand the concept of working and getting paid for it. Plus the chief didn't want them to leave.

The route went from one river to the next, twisting northward, until the chief and his fishermen could no longer agree on where to go next. Jevy compared his drawing to his maps.

“We've found her,” he said to Nate.

“Where?”

“There is a settlement of Ipicas here,” he said, pointing to a map. “South of Porto Indio, at the edge of the mountains. Their directions take us close to it.”

Nate leaned lower and examined the markings. “How do we get there?”

“I think we go back to the boat, and go north a half a day on the Paraguay. Then we use the little boat again to get to the settlement.”

The Paraguay looped relatively close to their target, and traveling to it on the Santa Loura struck Nate as a splendid idea. “How many hours in the little boat?” Nate asked.

“Four, more or less.”

“More or less” covered everything in Brazil. The distance, though, looked less than what they had covered since early morning.

“Then what are we waiting for?” Nate asked, standing and smiling at the Indians.

Jevy began saying thanks to their hosts, while folding his maps. Now that they were leaving, the Indians loosened up and wanted to be hospitable. They offered food, which Jevy declined. He explained that they were suddenly in a hurry, since they planned to return to the big river before dark.

Nate grinned at them as he backtracked to the river. They wanted to see the boat. They stood at the edge of the water, watching with great curiosity as Jevy adjusted the motor. When he started it, they took a step back.

The river, whatever it was named, looked entirely different going in the other direction. As they approached the first bend, Nate glanced over his shoulder and saw the Guato, still standing in the water.

The time was almost 4 P.M. With luck, they could make it past the large lakes before dark, then onto the Cabixa. Welly would be waiting, with beans and rice. As Nate did these quick calculations, he felt the first raindrops.

THE FLAW in the motor was not dirty spark plugs. It shut down completely fifty minutes into the return leg. The boat drifted with the current while Jevy removed the cover and attacked the carburetor with a screwdriver. Nate asked if he could help, and was quickly informed that he could not. At least not with the engine. He could, however, take a bucket and begin dipping out the rainwater. And he could take a paddle and keep them in the center of the river, whatever it was named.

He did both. The current kept them moving, although at a much slower pace than Nate preferred. The rain was intermittent. The river grew shallow as they approached a sharp curve, but Jevy was too busy to notice. The boat gained speed, and the rapids shoved it toward a thicket of dense brush.

“I need some help here,” Nate said.

Jevy grabbed a paddle. He turned the boat so the bow would hit and it wouldn't flip. “Hold on!” he said as they rammed into the thicket. Vines and branches flew around Nate and he fought them with his paddle.

A small snake dropped into the boat just over Nate's shoulder. He didn't see it. Jevy scooped it up with his paddle and flung it into the river. It was best not to mention it.

They battled the current for a few minutes, as well as battling each other. Nate somehow managed to push water in all the wrong directions. His enthusiasm for paddling kept the boat precariously close to rolling.

When they were free again, away from the brush and the wildlife, Jevy confiscated both paddles and found a new job for Nate. He asked him to stand over the motor, holding his poncho wide to keep the rain off the carburetor. So Nate hovered, sort of like an angel with his arms spread, one foot on a gas tank, one foot on the side of the boat, frozen with fear.

Twenty minutes dragged by, as they drifted aimlessly down the narrow river. The Phelan estate could purchase every shiny new outboard motor in Brazil, and here Nate was watching an amateur mechanic try to patch one that was older than he was.

Jevy bolted the top on it, then worked with the throttle for an eternity. He yanked the starter rope, as Nate found himself saying a prayer. On the fourth pull, the miracle happened. The engine howled, though not as smoothly as before. It missed and sputtered, and Jevy adjusted throttle cables without much luck.

“We'll have to go slower,” he reported, without looking at Nate.

“Fine. As long as we know where we are.”

“No problem.”

The storm crept over the mountains of Bolivia, then roared into the Pantanal, much like the one that had almost killed them in the airplane. Nate was sitting low in the boat, under the safety of his poncho, watching the river to the east, searching for something familiar, when he felt the first gust of wind. And the rain suddenly fell harder. He slowly turned and looked behind him. Jevy had already seen it, but said nothing.

The sky was dark gray, almost black. Clouds boiled low to the ground so that the mountains could not be seen. The rain began to drench them. Nate felt completely exposed and helpless.

There was nowhere to hide, no safe harbor to dock at and ride out the storm. There was nothing but water around them, water for miles in all directions. They were in the middle of a flood, with only the tops of the brush and a few trees to guide them through the rivers and swamps. They would stay in the boat because they had no choice.

A gale swept in behind them, driving the boat forward as the rain pelted their backs. The sky darkened. Nate wanted to curl up under his aluminum bench, clutch his floatable cushion, and hide as much as possible under his poncho. But the water was accumulating around his feet. The supplies were getting wet. He took his bucket and began shoveling rainwater.

They came to a fork that Nate was certain they had not passed earlier, then to a junction of rivers they could barely see through the rain. Jevy reduced the throttle to survey the waters, then hit the gas and took a sharp right as if he knew precisely where he was going. Nate was convinced they were lost.

After a few minutes, the river disappeared into a thicket of rotted trees-a memorable sight they had not seen earlier. Jevy quickly turned the boat around. Now they raced into the storm, and it was a terrifying sight. The sky was black. The current was churning with whitecaps.

Back at the junction, they talked for a moment, shouting through the wind and rain, then selected another river.

JUST BEFORE DARK they passed through a large flooded plain, a temporary lake that looked vaguely similar to the place where they'd found the fisherman in the weeds. He wasn't around.

Jevy selected a tributary, one of several, and proceeded as if he navigated this corner of the Pantanal every day. Then lightning came and for a while they could almost see where they were going. The rain slackened. The storm was slowly leaving them.

Jevy stopped the motor and studied the edges of the river.

“What are you thinking?” Nate asked. There had been very little conversation during the storm. They were lost, that much was certain. But Nate would not force Jevy to admit it.

“We should make camp,” Jevy said. It was more of a suggestion than a plan.

“Why?”

“Because we have to sleep somewhere.”

“We can take turns napping in the boat,” Nate said. “It's safer here.” He said this with the confidence of a seasoned river guide.

“Maybe. But I think we should stop here. We might get lost if we keep going in the dark.”

We've been lost for three hours, Nate wanted to say.

Jevy guided the boat to a bank with some growth. They drifted downriver, staying close to the shore and watching the shallow waters with their flashlights. Two little red dots glowing just above the surface meant an alligator was watching too, but thankfully they saw none. They anchored by tying a guide rope to a limb ten feet from the bank.

Dinner was semidry saltines, canned little fish that Nate had never experienced, bananas and cheese.

When the winds stopped, the mosquitoes arrived. Repellent was passed back and forth. Nate rubbed it on his neck and face, even his eyelids and his hair. The tiny bugs were quick and vicious and moved in small black clouds from one end of the boat to the other. Though the rain had stopped, neither man removed his poncho. The mosquitoes tried fiercely, but they could not penetrate the plastic.

Around 11 P.M. the sky cleared somewhat, but there was no moon. The current gently rocked the boat. Jevy offered to hold the first watch, and Nate tried his best to get comfortable enough to doze. He propped his head on the tent, and stretched his legs. A gap opened in his poncho and a dozen mosquitoes rushed forth, chewing him at the waist. Something splashed, perhaps a reptile. The aluminum boat was not designed for reclining.

Sleep was out of the question.

 


Date: 2015-02-03; view: 238


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